“The command to recite the Name of the Lord seems to refer to a certain act of devotion… The interpretation…according to which Ṣūrat al-‘Alaq urges the prophet to praise the Name of his Lord, was almost utterly forgotten.” (Uri Rubin)
“Al-Sijistāni holds that prophethood does not suddenly come into conjunction with just any prophet; rather, the prophet must experience significant change in his spiritual status.” (Shin Nomoto)
According to traditional interpretations, the verse (iqra bi-smi rabbika) instructs the Prophet to read the verses of the Qur’ān. But there is another way of understanding these verses, based on early Muslim tradition and sources, which yields a different interpretation and in turn reveals the spiritual secrets of the prophetic mission.
The Month of Ramaḍān which begins in a few days is the month in which the first revelations of the Holy Qur’ān came down to the Prophet Muḥammad. It is widely reported that the first verses of the Holy Qur’ān revealed to the Prophet as he meditated in the Cave of Hira were:
Iqrā’ bi-smi rabbika’lladhī khalaqa
Khalaqa al-insāna min ‘alaqin
Iqrā’ wa rabbuka al-Akramu
Alladhī ‘allama bi’l-qalami
‘Allama’l-insān ma lam ya‘lam
These verses are usually read and translated as follows:
Read: In the name of your Lord Who created
Created man from a clot
Read: And your Lord is most Generous
Who has taught by the Pen
Has taught man that which he knew not.
(Holy Qur’ān 96:1-5)
According to most traditional accounts and interpretations, the Prophet was being told to readthe verses of the Qur’ān which the Angel Gabriel was conveying to him. This interpretation implies that the Qur’ān, even prior to being revealed in the physical world, was a static and fixed text which the Prophet merely conveyed or ‘read’ to his community. But there is another way of understanding these verses, based on early Muslim tradition and sources, which yields a different interpretation altogether.
Remember the Name of your Lord
The words bi-smi rabbika must first be re-examined. In the traditional interpretation, these words mean ‘in the name of your Lord’ – where the word bi is translated as “in”. Thus, the Prophet is being commanded to merely read the Qur’anic verses – ‘in the name of’ his Lord as they revealed to him. But it would be better to actually look at all the instances of the words bi-smi rabbika in other Qur’ānic verses to see if this reading actually makes sense in the context of the Qur’ān as a whole:
Fasabbiḥ bi-smi rabbika al-‘aẓīmi
“Then praise the Name of your Lord, the Supreme.”
(Holy Qur’ān 56:74)
Fasabbiḥ bi-smi rabbika al-‘aẓīmi
“Then praise the Name of your Lord, the Supreme.”
(Holy Qur’ān 56:96)
Fasabbiḥ bi-smi rabbika al-‘aẓīmi
“Then praise the Name of your Lord, the Supreme.”
(Holy Qur’ān 69:52)
Wa-udhkuri isma rabbika wa tabattal ilayhi tabtīlān
“And remember the Name of your Lord and devote yourself to it/Him devotedly.”
(Holy Qur’ān 73:8)
Wa-udhkuri isma rabbika bukratan wa aṣīlān
“And remember the Name of your Lord morning and evening.”
(Holy Qur’ān 76:25)
In the first three verses (56:74, 56:96, 69:52), the expression bi-smi rabbika is used but the word bi is silent in meaning – it does not actually add anything to the meaning of the phrase which is read as “praise the Name of your Lord” instead of “praise in the Name of your Lord”. In the last two verses (73:8, 76:25), the bi is not present and the verb dhakara (to remember, to invoke) is used instead of the verb sabbaḥa (to praise, to glorify). But the meaning of all these verses is virtually the same in that they are instructing the Prophet (and/or the believers) to praise or remember the Name (ism) of their Lord.
This conclusion should be applied to the Iqrā’ verse and the words bi-smi rabbika. If we make the bi silent (as it is in the three verses above), and recall that the word Iqrā’ also means ‘recite’, then the first verse of the Qur’ān reads follows:
Iqrā’ bi-smi rabbika’lladhi khalaqa
“Recite the name of your Lord Who created”
The meaning of the above reading is vastly different than the traditional reading. Instead of being told to read a pre-determined, static text, the first verse of Ṣūrah al-Alaq is instructing the Prophet Muḥammad to recite or invoke the Name of his Lord. This reading was also supported by the early Qur’ān commentator Abu ‘Ubayda (d. 825) who held that iqrā’ bi-smi rabbika actually means iqra isma rabbika (‘Recite the Name of your Lord’). The ba is added in speech but is silent in its meaning and does not add anything to the phrase.
It appears that this was the original meaning of the first verses of the Qur’ān based on the earliest sources. It seems that later traditions and commentaries eventually shifted the meaning of this verse to the way it is read today: “Read: In the name of your Lord” according to which the Prophet was being commanded to simply read the ‘text’ of the Qur’ān. In this sense, the scholar Uri Rubin concludes that:
“The command to recite the Name of the Lord seems to refer to a certain act of devotion which the prophet is prompted to perform in honour of his Lord…The view that in Sūrat al-‘Alaq Muḥammad is commanded to start spreading the divine message of the Qur’ān has thus become the most prevalent one. The interpretation preserved by Abū ‘Ubayda, according to which Sūrat al-‘Alaq urges the prophet to praise the Name of his Lord, was almost utterly forgotten.”
(Uri Rubin, Some Notes on the Interpretation of Sūrat al-‘Alaq, Click Here to Read)
Therefore, we must ask the question: Why does it matter that the Qur’ān instructs the Prophet to “recite the Name of your Lord” as opposed to “Read: In the Name of your Lord”?
Firstly, this means that the Qur’ān is not necessarily a preset, static ‘text’ or ‘book’ which the Prophet Muḥammad was passively reading to his community. In fact, the very notion that the Prophet was literally reading or hearing Arabic words and sounds is itself questionable (this issue will be dealt with in a later post). Secondly – and more immediate for the present discussion – the verse shows that the Prophet was being told to perform a specific ritual – the recitation of a particular Name of God. The commentator al-Rāzī even adds that the meaning of iqrā’ (recite) in Ṣūrah al-‘Alaq is equivalent to udhkur (invoke, remember). Thus, the words iqrā bi-smi rabbika mean “remember/invoke the Name of your Lord”. This means when the Prophet was in the Cave of Hira, the first revelation of the Qur’ān was actually telling him to engage in the remembrance (dhikr) of the Name of God – and a very specific name as evidenced by the term rabbika (your Lord) which already suggests a particular and intimate connection between the Prophet and God.
The fact that the Prophet was instructed to recite or invoke or remember the Name of God shows that Muḥammad was, to some extent, familiar with this devotional practice of invocation. The Prophet, even prior to receiving revelation, knew of an actual Name of God to recite and the actual method of invocation. As he retreated regularly to the Cave of Hira, it appears that the Prophet was already engaged in certain spiritual practices and disciplines – which included the invocation and recitation of a specific Name of God – what is today known as dhikr. Interestingly, this practice of dhikr – the repeated remembrance and invokation of the Divine Name – is the bedrock of spiritual praxis throughout Shi‘ism and Sufism.
It is even more remarkable that another early ṣūrah of the Qur’ān – which came to the Prophet a few years after the first revelation – repeats the instruction for the Prophet to perform a specific recitation (qur’ān) of a weighty Word (qawl) – the Name of God – in a meditation during the night:
Qumi al-layla illā qalīlan
Niṣfahu awi unquṣ minhu qalīlan
Aw zid ‘alayhi wa-rattili al-qur’ān tartīlan
Innā sanulqī ‘alayka qawlan thaqīlan
Innā nāshi’ata al-layli hiya ashaddu waṭan wa-aqwamu qīlan
Innā laka fī’l-nahāri sabḥan tawīlan
Wa-udhkhuri isma rabbika wa-tabbattal ilayhi tabtīlan
O ye who wraps himself
Rise up during the night except a little
Half of it or less from it a little
Or add to it and recite the recitation with measured rhythm
Indeed, we will cast upon you a weighty Word
Indeed, the rising of the night is very hard and most potent and more suitable for the Word
Indeed for you in the day is prolonged occupation
And invoke the Name of your Lord and devote yourself to it with devotion.
(Holy Qur’ān 73:1-8)
These verses of Ṣūrah al-Muzzammil – which are among the earliest revelations of the Qur’ān in Mecca – prescribe a very specific spiritual practice. The Prophet is told to rise for a special night meditation and recite a special Word (qawl); the recitation (al-qurān) of this Word (the term al-qur’ān here refers to this particular recitation and not the Qur’ānic Scripture which did not yet exist) is to be done in a rhythmic tone which probably involves a specific breathing pattern; the Word to be invoked in this meditation is the Name of God and depending on how the words tabbattal ilayhi are read (i.e. “devote yourself to Him” or “devote yourself to it“), it may be said that the Prophet is instructed to devote himself to this invoked Name.
To summarize – the earliest revelations of the Qur’ān instruct the Prophet Muḥammad to engage and continue in the practice of reciting and invoking the Name of God – a Name which was a special and sacred Word that the Prophet was specifically granted.
The Ascension of the Prophets through the Names of God
The theme of the invocation of the Divine Name (ism ilahi) or Word (kalima; qawl) is not only unique to the case of Prophet Muḥammad – it actually recurs in the story of several Prophets in the Qur’ān.
In the Qur’ānic story of the appointment of Prophet Adam, what gives Adam precedence over the angels is the fact that God taught him all the “Names”. These “Names” taught to Adam were none other than the Divine Names – the Most Beautiful Names of God – by which Adam attained spiritual superiority over the angels:
Wa ‘allama ādama’l-asmāa kullahā thumma ‘araḍahum ‘alā’l-malāikati faqāla anbiūnī bi-asmāi hāulāi in kuntum ṣadiqīna
“And He taught Adam all the Names. Then he said to the angels: ‘Inform me of the Names of these if you are truthful.”
(Holy Qu’ān 2:31)
In other verses (38:72-73 and others), the Qur’ān refers to the “Spirit” (al-ruḥ) that God breathed into Adam after which the angels prostrated before him. This means that the Names of God and the Spirit are one – the Spirit comprises the inner reality of the Names. Henry Corbin remarks that:
“This is emphasized by a hadith (a tradition) illustrating the Qur’ānic verse, which declares that Adam remained there, flung like an inert body, until God breathed His spirit into him, that is, until He has breathed into him spiritual science, the science of the esoteric things, that “science of Names” (Qur’ān 2:29), by means of which beings are promoted to their true being.”
(Henry Corbin, Swedenborg and Esoteric Islam, 103-104, Click Here to Read)
The identification of the Spirit and the Divine Name is also demonstrated by the meaning of the Arabic word ruḥ. The term ruḥ is derived from the word riḥ (breath) and the actual recitation of the Divine Name (ism Allah) is actually a form of ‘breathing’ – indeed, this is the noblest form of breathing. And therefore, the Divine Spirit (ruḥ) or Breath (riḥ) which was given to the Prophet Adam took the form of the invoked Divine Name. In other words, the Prophet Adam attained his spiritual rank above the angels due to his internalization of the Divine Spirit which takes places through the invocation (dhikr) of the Names of God.
In the story of Noah, the Ark of Noah which leads the believers to salvation in both worlds runs its course by means of the Name of God:
Wa-qāla irkabū fīha bi-smi’llahi majrahā wa-mursāhā inna rabbī laghafūrun raḥīmun
And he (Noah) said: ‘Embark in it (the Ark). The Name of God is its course and its anchorage. Verily, my Lord is the Oft-Forgiving, the Merciful.’”
(Holy Qur’ān 11:41)
The Qur’ān also relates that God tested the Prophet Abraham by means of certain “Words” (kalimāt). These Words refer to the Divine Names by which Abraham ascended the ranks of spirituality until God appointed him as the Imām of of the time:
Wa-idhi ibtalā ibrāhīma rabbuhu bi-kalimātin fa amtammahunna qāla innī jā‘iluka li’l-nāsi imāman qāla wa min dhurriyyatī qāla lā yanālu ‘ahdī al-ẓalimīna
“And remember when Abraham was tried by his Lord by certain Words and he fulfilled them. He said: ‘Verily, I appoint you Imām of humankind.’ He (Abraham) said: ‘And of my descendents?’ He (God) answered: ‘My covenant is not with the unjust.’”
(Holy Qur’ān 2:124)
The Prophet Abraham’s spiritual legacy is also passed down amongst his descendents by means of a sacred Word (kalimah) which endures forever. In other words, Abraham taught these Words (kalimāt) and Names of God to his successors:
Wa-ja‘alahā kalimatan bāqiyatan fī ‘aqibihi la‘allahum yarji‘ūna
“And he made it an Enduring Word amongst his descendants so that they may return (to God).”
(Holy Qurān 43:28)
In the story of Mary and Jesus, the Qur’ān describes how Mary received the Spirit of God – due to which she gave birth to the Prophet Jesus:
Wa maryama ibnnata ‘imrāna allatī aḥsanat farjahā fanafakhnā fīhi min rūḥinā wa-ṣaddaqat bi kalimāti rabbihā wa-kutubihi mina’l-qānitīna
“And Mary, daughter of ‘Imran, who guarded her sexual organ and We breathed into it from Our Spirit. And she testified to the truth through the Words of her Lord and His Books and she one of the devout servants.”
(Holy Qur’ān 66:12)
Nāsir-i Khusraw gives the esoteric interpretation (ta’wīl) of the God breathing His Spirit into the sexual organ of Mary as follows:
“This means that Mary did not turn her ears to the devils (iblisan) with their speeches. This is because the sexual organ is like the ear, and ear symbolizes the sexual organ because through it comes the corporeal form (ṣurat-i jismāni), and through the ear the psychic form (ṣurat-i nafsāni). ‘She guarded her sexual organ’ means that she did not turn her ear to those who only teach the zahir, the formal side of the religion, disregarding the esoteric interpretation (ta’wīl).”
- Sayyidna Nāsir-i Khusraw,
(Shish Fasl or Six Chapters, transl. W. Ivanow, Chapter 3, Click Here to Read)
For Nāsir-i Khusraw, the Divine Spirit was breathed into the “ear” of Mary and not her sexual organ. This also shows that the actual form of the ‘breathing of Spirit’ was something audible – a Word (kalimah). The sexual organ in this verse is used as a symbol or metaphor for the ear. Just as the sperm – the source of the physical form – is deposited in the womb by means of the sexual organ, the Divine Word – the source of the spiritual form – is deposited in the soul through the ear.
Therefore, it is not surprising that even early Christian theology maintained that the Holy Spirit impregnated the Virgin Mary with Jesus not through her sexual organ but by means of her ear. Mary received the Spirit by ‘hearing’ the Word of God which was spoken to her.
“The bodily locus of the virginal conception was not portrayed in early Christian acts as the vagina, but the ear: ‘The conception was by hearing’, wrote John of Damascus. In early iconography the Holy Spirit is not portrayed as coming into Mary’s body physiologically by sexual transmission, but spiritually by attentive hearing…the conception was by right hearing of the Word of God.”
(Thomas C. Oden, Classic Christianity: A Systematic Theology, 292, Click Here to Read)
The end of the verse also mentions how Mary testified to the truth through the Words (kalimāt) of God – these being the same Words by which Abraham was tested. The Qur’ān also refers to Jesus as a Word (kalimah) from God which He breathed into Mary:
‘Isa ubnu maryama rasūlu’llahi wa-kalimatuhu alqāhā ilā maryam wa-rūḥun minhu
“The Messiah, Jesus son of Mary, was only the Messenger of God, and His Word (kalimatuhu) that He cast to Mary, and a Spirit from Him…”
(Holy Qur’ān 4:171)
The above verse states that Jesus was the God’s Spirit and Word (kalimah) which He “cast” (alqā) into the Virgin Mary. This is significant because in Ṣūrah al-Muzzammal (73:53), the exact same verb – alqā (to cast, to commit, to present) – is used when the verse says to the Prophet Muḥammad – “Indeed we will cast (sanulqī) upon you a Weighty Word”. Thus, the “casting” of the Word of God upon the Virgin Mary is identical to the “casting” of the Word of God to the Prophet Muḥammad.
Even in the case of Prophet Jesus, the Qur’ān indicates that God inspired him with the Holy Spirit. This Spirit is initially given to a Prophet in the form of a Word (kalimah) or Divine Name (ism ilahi) – as shown in the cases of Prophet Adam and the Virgin Mary.
It is indeed remarkable that the Qur’ān highlights the instrumental role of the Words, Spirit or Names of God in the spiritual ascendance of the major Prophets: Adam is exalted above the angels only through the Divine Names or Spirit; Noah’s Ark safeguards the believers by the power of the Name of God; Abraham passes God’s trials and attains to the rank of Imām of all humankind only after being tested by God’s Words and transmits this Word to endure amongst his descendants; Mary receives in her ear the Holy Spirit in the form of a audible Word to give birth to Prophet Jesus; Jesus performs his miracles by means of this Holy Spirit. The Prophet Muḥammad, both prior and after his initial revelations of the Qurān, is made to recite a weighty Word that is the Name of God.
Spiritual Initiation into Prophethood
The above Qur’ānic analysis shows that the great Prophets of God (e.g. Adam, Abraham, Noah, Mary/Jesus, Muḥammad) attained their exalted status by means of the Name of God which was received by them in the form of a Word (kalimah; qawl) that embodies the Divine Spirit. This demonstrates that the Prophets had to undergo a process of spiritual training, initiation, and development by means of the Word or Name of God to actualize their souls’ perfection for the function of prophethood.
These notions are all expressed in “the early Ismā‘īlī idea of the gradual formation of enunciator-prophethood or nāṭiq-ship in a future prophet”. For Ismā‘īlī gnosis, the person of the Prophet does not merely attain prophethood in a sudden way without any historical or spiritual context. The Prophet experiences a spiritual expansion and elevation of his own soul – the culmination of which is receiving divine inspiration (ta’yīd) of the Divine Spirit and assuming of the prophetic office (al-nubūwwah). While a Prophet possesses latent perfection and is pre-destined for his mission even before his physical birth, his spiritual training effects “the gradual development of the prophetic faculty in a future prophet” (Nomoto, 218). Many Ismā‘īlī Muslim theosophers and gnostics such as Abū Hātim al-Rāzi, Qādi al-Nu‘mān, and Abū Ya‘qūb al-Sijistānī have described this process of prophetic formation in their writings:
“On the issue of the gradual formation of prophethood, we must consider some passages by al-Sijistāni, who is more systematic in presenting his thought. Al-Sijistāni holds that prophethood (al-nubūwah) does not suddenly come into conjunction with just any prophet; rather, the prophet must experience significant change (al-istiḥālah) in his spiritual status until he reaches the rank of enunciator-prophethood (ḥadd al-nāṭiqīyah).”
(Shin Nomoto, Early Ismā‘īlī Thought on Prophecy According to the Kitāb al-Iṣlāḥ by Abū Ḥātim al-Rāzī, 217, Click Here to Read)
The Prophets’ spiritual training does not occur in isolation; numerous Ismā‘īlī esoteric texts relate how the Prophets were initiated and trained by a hierarchy of spiritual knowers – the dignitaries of the “Calling” (al-Da‘wah). The Calling (al-Da‘wah) is an ancient and perpetually present institution of spiritual knowers, sages, and initiates present in every time and age under the leadership of the Imām of each period (Click Here to Read our Previous Post for details). It is the Calling (al-Da‘wah) which transmits eternal gnosis from generation to generation across time and space. In certain historical periods, the Calling operates openly while in others it functions in secret (such as in the present age and time).
The earliest chapters of the Qur’ān indicate that both before receiving revelation and afterwards, the Prophet Muḥammad was already familiar with the spiritual practice of remembrance (dhikr) of the Divine Name. The fact that the Qur’ān instructed him to invoke the Name of his Lord (rabbika) indicates that a direct and intimate relationship already existed between the Prophet Muḥammad and God Himself. Thus, the Name which Muḥammad was reciting was a specific Divine Name (the Name of his Lord) that already had a special significance for the Prophet. This could only mean that Muḥammad was taught the ritual of invoking his Lord’s Name by the members or dignitaries (ḥudūd) of the Calling through whom he received spiritual training:
“Prophethood and prophetic ascent are linked to the gradual perfection of the human being that takes place initially with the training the “Calling” (da‘wah) provides in each prophetic cycle….The “Calling” of each epoch, like the “ranks of religion”, thereby provides the necessary training (tarbiyyah) not least for individual practitioners but for the prophets as well… Even the prophets are not exempt from the necessary training that the “Calling” provides in each cycle of prophetic history…The apparent Calling is paired with the hidden Calling for the purpose of explanation and facilitation.”
(Elizabeth R. Alexandrin, “Prophetic Ascent and Initiatory Ascent in Qāḍi al-Nu‘mān’s Asās al-Ta’wīl”, Gruber, Colby, The Prophet’s Ascension: Cross-Cultural Encounters with the Islamic Mi‘rāj Tales, 160-164, Click Here to Read)
The previous Prophets including Adam, Noah, Abraham, Moses, and Mary/Jesus, were all prepared and ‘raised’ (ba‘atha- Holy Qur’ān 2:213) for their missions in the same way. From the earliest revelations of the Qur’ān, one clearly sees that the actual method of the Prophet Muḥammad’s spiritual ascension to the rank of prophethood was the invocation (dhikr) of a special Word (kalimah; qawl) that is the Name of God (ism Allāh). It is of no small significance that almost all the Ṣūrahs of the Holy Qur’ān begin with the words bi-smi’llah – bearing witness to the reality that each and every revelation of the Qur’ān descended to the Prophet only through the invocation of the exalted Name (ism al-‘azam) of God. This truth is also made present in daily life when Muslims and people of other faiths invoke the Name of God (i.e. bi-ismi’llah) when beginning any task.
During this month of Ramaḍān and in all moments of life, the one who seeks to follow the Prophets’ example (sunnah) must engage in the intense remembrance (dhikr) of God’s Names. In doing so, the spiritual seeker responds to the Calling (al-da‘wah) – thereby perfecting his or her human soul to attain direct communion with the Holy Spirit – the Spirit which inspired the Prophet to “RECITE the Name of your Lord who created” (iqrā’ bi-smi rabbika’lladhi khalaqa).
For the academic and scholarly background to this post, consult the following:
Uri Rubin, Some Notes on the Interpretation of Sūrat al-‘Alaq, Click Here to Read
Shin Nomoto, Early Ismā‘īlī Thought on Prophecy According to the Kitāb al-Iṣlāḥ by Abū Ḥātim al-Rāzī (Thesis), Click Here to Read
Elizabeth R. Alexandrin, “Prophetic Ascent and Initiatory Ascent in Qāḍi al-Nu‘mān’s Asās al-Ta’wīl”, Gruber, Colby, The Prophet’s Ascension: Cross-Cultural Encounters with the Islamic Mi‘rāj Tales, Click Here to Read