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Numerology

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The Islamic World: Past and Present What is This? Accessible coverage of Islam from the seventh century to the twenty-first century

    Numerology

    The mystical science of interpreting numbers was immensely popular during the early Muslim period. Islamic numerology involves assigning each letter of the Arabic alphabet a number (alif 5 1, and so forth), and either creating words based on certain numbers, or adding the values of the letters of key phrases. Muslim scholars also find significance in numbers that appear multiple times in the Qur'an, the hadith, and other sources of Islamic tradition. Numerology continues in the Muslim world in the present day, as evidenced by the recent attempt of a scholar to prove that the entire Qur'an is based on the number 19.

    Early Islamic numerologists composed chronograms, or phrases in which certain letters spell out a date. After the death of Stalin in 1953 , for example, a Turkish theologian formed the chronogram “Satan was cast into Hell,” which contains the date of his death according to the Islamic calendar. In Iran, ancient buildings display lines of poetry or Qur'anic verses that spell out their dates of completion. Some books in the Muslim world received similar treatment. The title of the story Bagh va bahar (Garden and Spring), for example, shows that it was completed in 1803 .

    Islamic numerologists have noted that certain numbers occur frequently in divine texts and religious rituals. Muslims sometimes repeat actions and formulas three times in imitation of Muhammad, who often practiced threefold repetitions. Four serves as the number of universal order, and appears in the four righteous caliphs, the four schools of Sunni law, and the four wives that a Muslim man may legally marry. The number five marks the five Pillars of Islam, the five daily prayers, and in the Panjtan—the group composed of the holy persons Muhammad , Fatimah , Ali , Hasan , and Husayn . Muslims often write the names of these figures on hand-shaped amulets as a protective charm.

    The number seven has special significance in the Muslim world. It occurs in many ceremonies that take place during the pilgrimage to Mecca, such as the tawaf, in which Muslims circle the Kaaba seven times; the ritual of running seven times between the hills of Safa and Marwa; and the act of stoning Satan three times seven. The Islamic mystical path leads through seven steps or valleys. In Sufi mythology, saints appear in groups of seven. Seven also plays an important role in the Ismaili community, where the prophets, the prophetic cycles, and most aspects of life manifest themselves in sevens.

    The numbers 14 and 28 also have significance, as does 40, which indicates patience, trial, and maturity. Dervishes embark on 40-day seclusions, groups of 40 saints often appear in Islamic traditions, and some feasts continue for 40 days. After childbirth, women remain impure for 40 days, and the first memorial after a death occurs on the 40th day. In folktales, one might read about the 40 thieves, or women who give birth to 40 children at once. Proverbs depict 40 as the age at which one reaches maturity.

    Muslims use specific number patterns in the recitation of certain phrases and formulas. According to Islamic tradition, God loves odd numbers, being a single entity himself. Muslim prayer beads therefore come in odd numbers, and the repetition of formulas 33 or 99 times is considered beneficial. Dervishes sometimes utter divine names for as many times as the number they represent. Allah, for example, requires 66 repetitions. See also Magic and Sorcery; Mathematics.

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