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The Palace of Blessing and Grace

Discovering Spiritual Symbolism in the

Court of Lions at the Alhambra in Spain
Robert Abdul Hayy Darr

A d e l i g h t f u l f r a g r a n c e rides the spray scattered by the great

fountain. The courtyard’s visitors are cooled and refreshed by the
zephyr laced with roses, jasmine, and herbs. Defying the day’s relentless
heat, the chilly water flows unimpeded to the fountain through channels
and reaches the melting snows of the distant Sierra Nevada. The flowing
water nurtures this courtyard and the other royal palaces built atop a
promontory looking out over a wide, fertile valley. From the ancient city
below, the formidable walls of the royal enclave appear majestic and for-
bidding. Few from the town have seen the luxurious beauty hidden within
the palaces above, but the palaces’ renown reaches far beyond the snows
of these mountains. Across the reaches of Europe and through the various
lands of North Africa and the Near East, stories are told of the Alhambra’s
unmatched splendor and elegance.

Robert Abdul Hayy Darr was raised in Tahiti and California. After
graduating from high school, he studied north Indian music. He later be-
gan studying Persian poetry with Ali Zulanvar and continued studying
with the late renowned Afghan poet, Ustad Khalilullah Khalili, whose
quatrains Darr translated into English and published in 1988. He later
studied poetry and Islamic mysticism with Raz Mohammad Zaray, whose
poetry he also translated into English. In addition, Darr studied Persian
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miniature painting with Ustad Homayon Etemadi, the court painter and royal librarian for
the last king of Afghanistan, Zaher Shah.
Darr frequently speaks about Muslim culture and spirituality. He also serves as the found-
ing director of the Afghan Cultural Assistance Foundation. His recent publications include a
new translation of the Garden of Mystery by Mahmud Shabistari (1998). The Spy of the
Heart, a book describing his travels and spiritual journey in Afghanistan during the 1980s,
will soon be published, God willing. His work in progress, The Islamic Science of Letters
and Numbers, will include a number of essays, including a complete version of this paper.
The fountain is at the center of a rect- ish horseshoe arches are substantial but
Robert Abdul Hayy Darr

angular garden-courtyard quartered by do not seem massive. The fine geometrical

water channels, forming a large cross. The perforations covering their surfaces suggest
channels drain small fountains whispering a lattice of cascading water and light. Grace-
nearby in the royal halls at the north and ful patterns of light and shadow invade the
south sides of the courtyard, and smaller obscurity of the chambers at each side of
pools to the east and west of it, under two the courtyard.
stunning pavilions. The delicate pavilions All of the surfaces are covered with
startle the senses. There is a felicitous intricate designs and several styles of callig-
harmony in the overall impression of the raphy. The carved plaster arches and wall
courtyard. It is an austerity celebrating designs were originally painted and, here
an abundance of life and joy. Water flows and there, dressed in gold. Other colors
gently from the smaller pools through the could be found in what was then a thriv-
marble channels toward the central foun- ing garden, fragrant and full of birdsong,



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tain. Here the main jet’s silver spray falls around the fountain in this courtyard. This
into a massive basin that nurtures twelve palace, now called the Court of Lions, rep-
water-spewing lion statues. The courtyard is resents the epitome of Nasrid architecture
bordered by covered walkways that connect and craftsmanship in Andalusia during the
the royal chambers. These and the cupolas fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. It is
of the delicate pavilions are supported by perhaps the grandest artifact from an age
fine marble pillars that appear suspended of splendor that manifested at many levels
from the arches they support. Their Moor- of culture; the finest music, literature, sci-

The Palace of Blessing and Grace


ence, medicine, and many other arts and rids had somehow survived the endless
crafts came together in Islamic Spain. threats as well as the frequent strife occur-
It is helpful to reflect on this full range ring within their own dynasty. They had
of cultural expression when visiting the also survived an outbreak of plague in the
Alhambra palaces today. The poems on early fourteenth century. Careful alliances
the walls express not only the sensibilities with their Christian neighbors and the sup-
of that time, but remind us of the rich life port of the Marinids in Morocco secured
beyond the responsibilities of government their existence for a time. Perhaps it was
which took place at the royal court: the with this sense of the ephemeral nature of
appreciation of poetry and music, conver- things that the dynasty adopted the slogan,
sations about metaphysics and astronomy, “There is no victor but God” (L¥ gh¥lib ill¥
presentations on religion and mysticism. All¥h). This phrase is repeated throughout
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The Nasrid rulers were well aware the walls of the palace.
both of the splendid refinement of their Even more striking is the invocation of
court and the precariousness of this last the word barakah found in hundreds of
foothold of Islamic power in Spain. Their places throughout the palaces. There are,
own ancestors had been vassals of the in fact, whole walls covered with this word
Christian powers that had, with their help, and its naturalistic emblems: the pinecone,
conquered the Muslim domains of Seville acorn, leaf sprout, and seashell. Barakah
and its surrounding territories. The Nas- means “blessing” or “divine grace.” Scholars
and art historians have noted this word in who covered whole surfaces of walls and
Robert Abdul Hayy Darr

the Sala de la Barca, the entry chamber to arches with calligraphic representations of
the Ambassador’s Hall. Yet the word bara- the word barakah along with the pinecone
kah is, in fact, far more ubiquitous in the and other seed and sprout forms emblem-
Court of Lions, where it ornaments arches, atic of it. The word seems not only meant to
capitals, and some of the walls. The word be an invocation of blessing upon the royal
has been carved in many striking forms of inhabitants, but also was and still remains
Kufic and cursive calligraphy. These are a constant reminder of the beauty and joy
invariably accompanied by carvings of the found in God’s manifestations of mercy.
pinecone and acorn, leaves and sprouts, The pinecone, which is the most common
flower buds and seashells. These are all emblem of barakah at the Alhambra, is an
ancient symbols of bounty and fertility as apt symbol of this aspect of God’s merci-
well as good fortune. ful nature and creativity. It is the singular
This word barakah has an interesting bearer of many seeds of life, each of which
range of meaning. It has been used to contains all the potentials of each stage in
indicate the spirituality of certain saints as the growth of a new life. The pinecone rep-
well as of sacred places. This spirituality is resents the principle of multiplicity within
thought to be enlightening, protective, and unity, as well as unity which comprehends
nurturing. Barakah also refers to manifes- multiplicity.



tations of spirit, such as the abundance, Many of the inscriptions1 on the walls of
bounty, and blessings of the good life. We the Alhambra palaces celebrate the rule of
often see this use of the word on Andalu- various sultans of the Nasrid dynasty. But as
sian coins and other artifacts from the peri- James Dickie notes,
od. The Court of Lions was a retreat from
A proper Muslim ruler never styled
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the tiresome responsibilities of governing,

himself “king,” which would be an
a place for the intimacy of family and social
encroachment on God’s sovereignty,
life. What greater earthly blessing could
but only “sultan” (the [Arabic word]
there be than this reflection of paradise,
root s-l-t conveys the notion of del-
this home of the sultan?
egated authority); he recognized that
Consider, for a moment, the importance
his power derived from the SharϢah, the
that this concept of divine grace must have
divinely revealed law; indeed it was the
had in the minds of the palace designers,

The Palace of Blessing and Grace


often members of Sufi fraternities whose

application of this law that legitimized
spiritual journeys were recorded in the
his rule.2
artistic media of the time, borrowing fre-
Islam is staunchly unitarian in its con- quently from the allegorical references of
ception of God as unique and transcen- the Qur’an.
dent. Yet God is also thought to display For the Sufi, the walled garden repre-
His3 beauty and complexity in this world. sents the sanctuary of the heart, the center
In the Qur’an, Allah frequently speaks of of existential awareness in a human being.
nature and its forces as symbols of spiritual This heart is thought to be a mirror, or
realities. The Qur’anic description of para- showplace, of divine manifestation. It is the
dise tells of a garden watered by fountains, refuge from man’s amnesia about his origin
rivers, and pools. This is God’s manifesta- and high purpose. In the heart of the mys-
tion of mercy and peace upon those whose tic, God might manifest His transcendental
hearts are free from strife and opposition unity or His diversity of expression in sym-
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to the truth of their origination by Him bols. The fountain represents God’s one-
and their return to Him. The ordinary ness, His essential, unique determination
Muslim believer tends to understand the and divine identity that has no partner. The
garden as a symbol of the afterlife, while word for “essence” in Arabic is ¢ayn. This
the mystic sees the garden as a reflection word ¢ayn also means “spring,” “fountain,”
of the spiritual relationship—while yet the water source that sustains all life. There
alive—with God. The great poets, artists, is, in many cultures, an ancient tradition
and calligraphers of that golden age were about the fountain of eternal life, the fons
Robert Abdul Hayy Darr



vitae. It is also described as a fountain of ism in the structures that survive. Some of
eternal freshness or youth. For the Muslim, this symbolism was shared by Jewish and
springs and fountains immediately invoke Christian mystics, whose religious stories
Qur’anic descriptions of paradise where reappear in the Qur’an. It should be noted
underground rivers nourish a fountain that there was a strong connection between
called salsabÏl, which is one of the delights Jewish and Muslim mystical expression dur-
of the dwellers of paradise. ing this period. In fact, it is thought that
The courtyard fountain drains into a Joseph b. Nagrila (d. 425/1034), son of the
basin that provides water to twelve water- Jewish vizier of the Muslim Granadan lords
spewing lion statues that support it. The of the eleventh-century, laid out the origi-
lion statues are thought by some scholars to nal gardens of the Alhambra palaces two
have been brought to the Alhambra from centuries before the creation of the Court
the nearby residence of an eleventh-centu- of Lions.4
ry Jewish vizier. It is certainly true that this As mentioned, the word ¢ayn also means
was not the first fountain with lions. There “essence” in Arabic. The word immediately
is even a poem by Ibn Gabirol (d. 450 evokes the idea of the unlimited Source
AH/1058 CE) extolling a majestic fountain of Existence. It may surprise the reader to
with lions in eleventh-century Cordoba. learn that the word has yet another mean-
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Whatever the truth of their provenance, in ing, that of “eye.” Arabic is a remarkable
this mystical exegesis, the lions represent language that is given to multiple entendre.
divine power manifesting in the world of We now see combined in this one word
multiplicity and diversity. The Court of the concepts of essence, the life-source of
Lions, as we now call this place, is evocative being, and perception or awareness. This
of the divine manifestation of the human is the Essence/Fount of Being/Witnessing
heart. It should, therefore, not be surpris- in the nature of God percieved to some
ing to find special language and symbol- degree by the mystic’s heart. Poets and
mystics have a long tradition of making
Robert Abdul Hayy Darr

full use of the poly-suggestive nature of this

language. Although the Arabs borrowed THE TREASURE TROVE OF MYSTICAL

fountain and garden designs from Persian, SYMBOLISM AND ALLUSION HIDDEN
Near Eastern, and Mediterranean ante-
cedents, these took on special meaning in
imperial Arabian culture, both because of HAS SCARCELY BEEN TAPPED.

the well-known Qur’anic descriptions of

paradise as a garden with fountains and stalactite (muqarnas) construction in the
rivers, and because of the word associations world. James Dickie writes, “Upward of
already mentioned. five thousand cells cascading downward
The pre-Islamic Arabs were, compared produce in their disciplined descent domes
with their Persian and Roman neighbors, within a dome the most complex ceiling in
scientifically and technologically unsophis- the Muslim world and the apogee of Islamic
ticated. The Andalusian Arabs, like the art on the peninsula.”5 On the walls of this
imperial Abbasids of Baghdad, became the hall are some lovely verses by Ibn Zamrak
synthesizers of the scientific, technological, (d. 796/1393), the dynasty’s finest poet. A
philosophical, and aesthetic cultures of poem there opens with the verse,
the ancient world. By Nasrid times, Islamic I am a garden adorned by Beauty.
palace and garden design had reached its Truly, a glance at my loveliness reveals
apogee at the Alhambra, even if these were my soul!
not built on the expansive scale of classical What appears on the surface as worldly
imperial residences, such as the Medinat literature was often equally meant as praise
al-Zahra near Cordoba. The Nasrids culti- of God and could even have been meant
vated a refinement of the earlier forms and as an allusion to mystical experience. Poets
specialized in the evocation of intimacy in often played on the multiple meanings of
the smaller spaces they created. “Intimacy,” the word ¢ayn. An example by Ibn Zamrak
here, means an immediate sense of connec- in the Court of Lions complex can be found
tion and even a feeling of being absorbed in the Mirador de Lindaraja. It reads,
into the existence of the surroundings. This In this garden I am an eye filled with
psychological effect can be contrasted with delight
the inspiring sense of awe and the uplifting And the pupil of this eye is none other
awareness of one’s insignificance evoked than our lord.6
within many huge palaces and religious “Lord,” here, is usually taken to mean the
buildings all over the world. sultan, Mu^ammad V (r. 755–760/1354–
The aesthetic of intimacy reaches its 1359 and 763–793/1362–1391), who was
height of achievement at the Court of Lions thought to have viewed the gardens from
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in the stunning Hall of the Two Sisters and the Mirador. According to a Sufi doctrine
the Hall of Abencerrajes at the north and quite current at that time, it is actually God
south side of the fountain respectively. It who is the ultimate Seer in all seeing. With
is thought that these spaces were primar- that in mind, it is possible to understand
ily used for musical performances and the the stanza in a different light and to take
recitation of poetry. The ceiling in the the meaning of “lord” quite differently.
Hall of the Two Sisters is the most complex The words used in the line, “ins¥n al-¢ayn”
expression of the Persian architectural the “person in the eye,” meaning the pupil,

The Palace of Blessing and Grace


are precisely the words used by the Sufi and the mind becomes clothed in the enti-
gnostics when alluding to seeing through ties of the cosmos, and is revealed in the
the eyes of the “true human,” the vicege- experience of the senses and the mind.
rent of God.7 Throughout Islamic history, mysticism
Ineffable mystical experience cannot has often been opposed by conventional
directly be described, and must be referred religionists, who could neither conceive
to through metaphor and analogy. Much of nor accept the existence of a direct per-
of the literature and art of this period was sonal confirmation of scriptural revelation.
dedicated to this endeavor. This art seeks The Almohad, Marinid, and Nasrid clerics
to communicate, through the senses and were generally opposed to the Sufis and
through the mind, that which is beyond the philosophers. Enigmatic reference to
the senses and the mind. It further commu- mystical experience has a long tradition in
nicates how that which is beyond the senses Islam where mystics were not infrequently
put to death for claiming a direct experien-
tial knowledge of God. It is not surprising
that special languages would have evolved
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AS WORLDLY LITERATURE WAS to veil the realities of mystical experience.

Mystical and cosmological symbolism,
whether found in literature, art, or archi-
tecture, created a context for understand-
BEEN MEANT AS AN ALLUSION ing and attuning oneself to the spiritual
world. Art historians often cite the Alham-
bra as an example of Islamic architectural
symbolism because of the cosmological
references evident in the ceiling of the Hall used in chronograms, talismans, and even
Robert Abdul Hayy Darr

of the Ambassadors. It has been quite cred- magic, numerology was also used by mystics
ibly demonstrated that this ceiling depicts and metaphysicians to communicate the
the cosmological hierarchy of the Throne fundamental realities of existence and cos-
of Allah set above the seven heavens of the mology. We should remember that, at the
created world.8 The impact of the room’s time of the building of the Court of Lions
proportions, lighting, and surface detail during the reign of Mu^ammad V, there
allow one to viscerally experience the mes- existed an unparalleled body of mystical
sage illustrated in the vaulted ceiling. One and cosmological literature replete with
feels at once dwarfed, awed, and protected number symbolism. The impact of Andalu-
under this walled heavenly dome. It is easy sian writers like Ibn al-¢ArabÏ (d. 638/1240)
to imagine some may have felt a sense of and Ibn Rushd (d. 595/1198) in educated
divine authority acting through the sultan circles cannot be overemphasized. In
whose throne once sat under this represen- fact, the impact of the Sufi Ibn al-¢ArabÏ
tation of the cosmic hierarchy. on mysticism was without precedence in
A good deal of debate has taken place the whole of the Islamic world where he
concerning the sym- is still called the
bolism of this and “Greatest Teacher”


other structures at (al-shaykh al-akbar).
the Alhambra. Yet In his major work,
the treasure trove of al-Futu^¥t al-mak-
mystical symbolism kiyyah (The Meccan
and allusion hidden R e v e l a t i o n s ) , he
throughout these describes and makes
palaces has scarcely use of numerology
been tapped. The and other forms of
symbolic language number symbol-
must be known ism. Ibn al-Kha~Ïb
before the com- (d. 774/1374),
munication can be Mu^ammad V’s bril-
understood. One of the symbolic languages liant minister who was also a lover of poetry,
of the Sufis is a form of numerology gener- philosophy, and mysticism, was eventually
ally called abjad in the Islamic world. Each put to death in Fes; he was accused of her-
letter of the alphabet is assigned a number, esy and of being a supporter of philosophy
allowing words to have specific numerical and Sufism.10 He was the statesman who
assignations through the addition of their tutored Mu^ammad V in his youth and
letter-numbers. In this manner, words and who would have had a strong influence on
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concepts with the same number totals can all of the activities at the court. One of his
be identified with each other. The funda- famous books was the Raw\ah al-ta¢rÏf bi
mentals of this system, far from being eso- al-^ubb al-sharÏf (The Garden of Knowing the
teric, are found in Arabic dictionaries and Noble Love). These men had in common
grammar books.9 a love of evocative symbolism that has the
The use of abjad has a long history in power to keep the mind attuned to its fun-
Islamic Spain where it was employed in damental relationship with True Reality. It
literature and art. Although commonly should not then come as a surprise to find
that even numerology was employed in the

The Palace of Blessing and Grace

Alhambra palaces where there is already so
much symbolic language in evidence. SYMBOLISM, WHETHER FOUND IN

One out of many outstanding exam- LITERATURE, ART, OR ARCHITECTURE,

ples of the architectural usage of abjad
employed at the Alhambra palaces is the
geometric designs on the underside of the UNDERSTANDING AND ATTUNING

cupolas within the pavilions at the east and ONESELF TO THE SPIRITUAL WORLD.
west sides of the Court of Lions. These are
wooden arabesques that have survived the of the number one. The aesthetic appeal
centuries with little decay, thanks to the dry of monoformal symmetry, in which a mir-
climate of the region. These semispheri- rored singularity creates multiplicity, is
cal arabesques were designed with a very expressed in many Islamic arts, such as
interesting geometry. Each cupola shelters book cover designs, medallion carpets, and
twelve eleven-pointed stars connected to architecture. In the Court of Lions, we see
each other by minor star polygons. Muslim this symmetry highlighted by the protru-
artists made wide use of star geometry but sion of the mirrored pavilions at the east
rarely of the more difficult eleven-pointed and west ends of the courtyard. These, of
star arabesques. One must wonder why course, contain virtually identical domes
they went to such trouble, especially under with the same unitarian symbolism.
cupolas sheltering fountains and generally The stars are arranged in three levels
out of view. of four stars each. Forty-four, invoked at
Mystically important truths are alluded each level of four eleven-pointed stars, is
to in this geometry. First, there is the most numerically synonymous with the divine
obvious symbolism of each eleven-pointed unity, al-A^ad.13 This divine Oneness of
star. The number eleven, through numeri- Being does not Itself become multiple
cal equivalence, is synonymous with the through the appearance of the particu-
Divine Self or Identity, called Huwa11 in larities of created existence any more than
Arabic. Huwa, or H‰, is the Absolute Exis- light becomes plural in the various colors
tence, whether conceived of as beyond and shadings in which it is manifested. The
the particularities of the created world or unity of God is, of course, a fundamental
as the source and very existence of those belief of Islam and a fundamental experi-
particularities. This double aspect of True ence of the mystics. There also happen to
Reality may be conceived of as the “Unity be forty-four floral shapes decorating each
of the Essence,” and its other aspect may eleven-pointed star, 14 numerologically
be called the “Unity of the Names.”12 The forming the sentence in each of the stars,
Names of God and the multiplicity arising “He is the One” (Huwa al-A^ad)!
seasons | spring 2006 |

from them in the cosmos are only experi- An important aspect to the overall
enced as multiplicity in a consciousness that message of the cupolas is the fact that the
cannot apprehend their fundamental unity totality of the twelve stars (each with eleven
mirrored in the cosmos and only perceives points giving an aggregate of 132 points)
their diversity of meaning as manifested indicates the word qalb,15 an Arabic word
in the forms. A subtlety in the symbolism that has the double meaning of “heart” and
of the divine Identity, Huwa, is that the “transformation.” Heart, as earlier pointed
number eleven results from the mirroring out, might well be translated into contem-
porary English as “mind” or “conscious- verse repeated on the walls throughout the
Robert Abdul Hayy Darr

ness.” The particularities of existence, palace reminds us. This meaning of Islam
whether experienced in the world or in the is the origin of the faith’s earthly shadow,
mind, are thought of as divine self-manifes- the Islam of submission to God’s word and
tations conforming to noumenal potentials ordinances, as Islam is more commonly
called “essences,” a¢y¥n. The potentials understood. The abjadist sees clear linkage
remain in a state of non-manifestation while in these concepts in the striking coinci-
Being is thought to manifest according to dence that the word “Islam” itself also has
various characteristics of their latencies. a numerology of 132.18 And if I may strain
These potentials, a¢y¥n,16 also have an abjad the reader’s credulity, 132 is also the abjad
of 132. We can derive from the symbolism equivalent for Mu^ammad,19 the Prophet of
of the cupolas that the mystery of Divine Islam s. In this last instance, it is common-
Unity and the appearance of multiplicity at place among abjadists to count the doubled
their most fundamental level can be expe- “m” in his name, an anomaly that aids in
rienced in the properly attuned heart, or joining all of these concepts together. It is
consciousness, of the mystic. the “Mu^ammadan heart” that embraces
Islamic mysticism is firmly grounded in the double aspects of Unity—God’s tran-
the scripture of the Qur’an as well as in scendental unity—beyond the multiplicity
the divinely inspired sayings (hadith) of of creation, and God’s unity of being within
the Prophet Mu^ammad s. The cupolas the ever-changing diversity occurring at all
artistically express the meaning of one levels of existence.
famous saying where God announces, “My The foregoing is only a partial exegesis
earth and My sky do not contain Me, but of the symbolism of these domes. The
the heart of My faithful servant contains attuned reader could find many more spiri-
Me.” In other words, it is as though God tually evocative and metaphysically useful
says that He is not known—not as the Sin- representations in their geometry, as well
gular and transcendental Divinity nor as as in other areas of the palaces. These over-
the self-manifesting Divinity bestowing exis- lays of numerological and other symbol-
tence upon the limitless potentials of the isms are meant to broaden the impact we
noumena—except in the purified human already receive directly from the aesthetics
heart-mind which is vast enough to com-
prise His vastness.

It is in this citation that one can under-

stand the Sufi conception of true Islam.
This is an Islam, which according to the
root meaning of the word,17 leads to a
surrender—a surrender of the person-
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ally constructed worldview of the instinct-

dominated person to the unlimited and
infinite source of existence. Experiential-
ly, this means the opening of a luminous,
existential vastness in the consciousness
of the individual who has let go the PILLARS WITH THE

defenses of the strife-ridden kingdom of WORD BARAKAH AT THE

the self. “There is no victor but Allah,” as the COURT OF LIONS

of this place. Why are we so moved by these the meaning of life. In art and literature,

The Palace of Blessing and Grace

palaces? What do we experience from the they have left behind their thoughts and
proportions and symmetries of this special visions concerning the true meaning of the
courtyard? human being. There has been extensive
The majestic fountain and the patterns study of the literature from both regions,
of light in the shadows continue to delight giving us a fairly clear sense of their ideas
us. The Court of Lions provides a glimpse on cosmology and spirituality. People today
into the rich life of the Nasrid monarchs are less familiar though with the possibility
who built and adorned the Alhambra pal- of expressing these insights in the realms
aces with the best of Islamic architectural of the visual and musical arts. Yet it is
and artistic expression. In the same period precisely in these presentations that meta-
in faraway Khorasan, Muslim rulers of the physical concepts can be absorbed by the
Timurid era also brought together the non-linear, meta-analytical capacities of the
best artists and poets of the day. Both have mind and spirit. The survival of the Court
left us with artifacts that still bear witness of Lions gives us the opportunity to better
to the beauty and complexity of Islamic understand this form of subtle communica-
culture. Both cultures especially treasured tion.





metaphysical and mystical writings and Additional Notes on Numerology

works of art that were esteemed by the Sacred alphabetical numerology, the
rulers and the great thinkers of their day. communication of mathematical rela-
Art and literature were then dominated tionships between philosophical and
by members of Sufi organizations in both metaphysical concepts through the use of
regions. Part of the genius of this time was letter/number identity systems, is far older
a result of the sharing and borrowing of than Islamic Arabic culture. The origins of
ideas and symbols across time and culture. numerology are a bit unclear, but systems
Hence, the most sophisticated example for its use were extant in ancient Phoenicia
of the Persian stalactite dome is found in and Greece. It is important to distinguish
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Spain at the Alhambra. Mystics and think- sacred numerology from the widespread
ers of the Timurid courts of Central Asia use of numerology in the talismanic and
were, in the same period, busy preparing magical arts, as well as in administrative
long commentaries on the writings of the documentation. Sacred numerology has
Andalusian mystic, Shaykh Ibn al-¢ArabÏ. been reserved primarily for the expression,
These individuals, thousands of miles from instruction, and codification of metaphysi-
each other, applied themselves to discover- cal concepts; and for their verification by
ing the capacities of the human spirit and mystics of the great spiritual traditions.
In the West, what are now called Arabic inherent danger of obsessive thinking and
Robert Abdul Hayy Darr

numerals were imported from India into inappropriate systematization taking over
Arabia, where alphabetical letters had the minds of aspirants who struggle with
also served as numbers (as was the case in the uncertainties of mystical experience.
other Near Eastern and Mediterranean Many mystics find themselves with an
cultures). Prior to the introduction of enhanced capacity for using puns and
Indian numbers, Arabs automatically made apprehending the connections between
numerological associations between letters concepts and events that had not been
and numbers, and it was inevitable that evident prior to their spiritual transforma-
important concepts and ideas came to have tions. Some of these mystics of the Islamic
number identities. Islamic culture has, world have found the language of abjad
from its inception, made use of numerol- useful for such associative exploration and
ogy. Most educated readers of the great communication. Anyone without such an
poetry in Arabic and Farsi are still aware associative capacity may be unable to sup-
of this, at least to some extent. As a clear port or acknowledge the benefit, or even
and simple example, for many poems the existence, of such communication.
containing numerological expression are The example of numerology employed
deliberately quite obscure, here is a cou- in the cupolas that I have explicated in
plet from one of Hafiz of Shiraz’s ghazals20 this paper is quite straightforward, and I
(d. 791/1389): propose to give a bit more detail to help
There is naught on my heart’s tablet guide anyone interested in pursuing this
but the Friend’s letter “A.” topic. I have pointed out that through the
What can I do, as the Master has use of a set of eleven-pointed stars, one
taught me no other letter. could communicate certain metaphysically
The letter A (alif in Arabic/Farsi) is, fundamental concepts about the nature of
in abjad, equivalent to the number one. unity and multiplicity. I used the simplest
Hafiz indicates that God alone is present abjad form—that of counting just the num-
in his heart, and that he experiences mys- ber of points of the star arabesques and
tical oneness with God because his heart the number of floral forms contained by
(consciousness) has been wiped clean of them. There is often a secondary form of
duality. counting used in geometrical abjad that
Numerology is widely used in the mysti- can be applied to these arabesques, which
cal literature of Islam, as is allegorical and would yield additional metaphysical mean-
metaphorical language. All of these expres- ing. I will introduce just one example of
sions, including the calligraphy itself, this in order not to deny the earnest reader
have a double intention of revealing and a deeper appreciation for this subtle lan-
hiding the communication. This accords guage.
| spring 2006 | seasons

perfectly with the paradoxical reality of The reader will notice that in forming
mystical experience which has been vari- the eleven-pointed stars, hexagons make
ously described as “a bright midnight,” an up the largest polygons of each star. There
“open secret,” an “obscurity hidden by its are other important polygon shapes within
very obviousness,” among others. each star, but let’s just examine the larger
Not all mystics make use of numerology. hexagons that form the actual points of the
Moreover, some of the mystical orders of stars. Each star has eleven of these. Each
Sufism actually barred its use because of the hexagon could be described as having six
4 Maria Rosa Menocal, The Ornament of

The Palace of Blessing and Grace

1 2
1 the World (New York: Little, Brown and
Company, 2002), 105.
11 5 Dickie, “The Palaces,” 146.
4 4 6 Ibid.

7 See the chapter entitled “Adam” in the Fu|‰|

10 al-^ikam by Ibn al-¢ArabÏ for this doctrine
5 and its language.
8 The ceiling depicts the Qur’anic verses
“Blessed is He in whose hands is the sovereignty”
(67:3) and “He created the seven heavens layered
upon each other” (67:5).
DIAGRAM OF THE 9 See, for example, W. M. Thackston, An
ELEVEN-POINTED STAR Introduction to Koranic and Classical Arabic
SHOWING TWO WAYS OF (Bethesda, MD: Iranbooks, 1994), 245.
COUNTING FOR ABJAD 10 See Medieval Iberia: An Encyclopedia, E.
Michael Gerli, ed. (New York: Routledge,
connected lines or six points of line inter- 2003), 416–417.
section, either way giving the number six. 11 h=5 + w=6 gives a total of 11.
Six times the eleven hexagons gives six- 12 For an explication of this doctrine, see the
ty-six, the abjad for Allah, God. This word chapter entitled “Joseph” in Ibn al-¢ArabÏ’s
not only means God in the general sense Fu|‰| al-^ikam.
but has a particular significance in Islamic 13 a=1 + l=30 + a=1 + ^=8 + d=4; this gives a total
mysticism, representing the Divine as both of 44.
the formless Essence and the totality of 14 See the close-up of the eleven-pointed star
the cosmos-engendering Divine Names on this page.
explored in the essay. So the metaphysi- 15 q=100 + l=30 + b=2, gives a total of 132.
cal communication about divine Unicity 16 a=1 + ¢=70 + y=10 + a=1 + n=50, gives 132.
and multiplicity is further unveiled in yet 17 From s-l-m come the meanings of surrender
another layer of abjad communication. and wholeness.
18 a=1 + s=60 + l=30 + a=1 + m=40, gives 132.
“We will guide them in Our ways.” 21 19 m=40 + ^=8 + m=40 + m=40 + d=4, gives 132.
Doubled letters are not normally counted
NOTES twice.
1 See Jose Miguel Puerta Vilchez, “La 20 Editor’s note: A ghazal is “a lyric poem with
Alhambra de Granada: Poder, Arte y Utopia,” a fixed number of verses and a repeated
Cuadernos de la Alhambra 23, 1987 rhyme, typically on the theme of love, and
seasons | spring 2006 |

2 James Dickie, “The Palaces of the normally set to music.” (The New Oxford
Alhambra,” in Al-Andalus, The Art of Islamic American Dictionary, 2nd ed. New York:
Spain, Jerrilynn D. Dodds, ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005.)
Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1992), 139. 21 Qur’an 29:69.
3 Although divinity, in itself, is beyond such
concepts of gender, the active aspect of

God is identified in masculine terms in the