Peace, one and all…
Adab Ya Hu!
Adab is such an essential concept on the spiritual path that it is worth contemplating its meaning and practice carefully. The word conveys notions of mannerliness, refinement, politeness, education and civility. Perhaps the most comprehensive definition I have personally encountered is ‘appropriate action’. That is, each new moment has its own unique adab, its own appropriate word or deed or state. Interacting with others has its own form of adab, as does each unfolding moment of our ongoing relationship with Divinity. This is no doubt why the Sufi tradition developed adab into a unique art form. Thus many Sufi masters devoted themselves to understanding and applying this most important spiritual value.
Given the significance of these things, perhaps we might be able to tease out some points of use by reflecting on the shape of the Arabic word itself. Contemplating the meanings behind the shapes and combinations of letters has a venerable history in Sufi tradition, which understands meaning as being inherent in all things. So, in this vein, I would like to share a few reflections on the truly pregnant word adab.
Before we begin, however, I feel it is important to point out that the ideas offered here are neither authoritative nor absolute – they merely reflect an ongoing, personal attempt to contemplate the infinite signs of God. And as the Arabic saying goes: Wallahu A`lam (or ‘God knows best’).
The Word Adab
As we can see from the image above, the Arabic word adab consists of three letters: alif, dal and ba’. In line with all Arabic words, adab is derived from a tri-lateral root, conveying the basic sense of the term and from which more extended meanings are derived. The Hans Wehr Dictionary defines adab as: ‘culture, refinement; good breeding, good manners, social graces, decorum, decency…humanity, humaneness’ (p.9). Aduba can mean: ‘to be well-mannered, cultured, urbane’ and also ‘to refine, educate; to discipline’. So, as well as being a praiseworthy quality, it is also understood as a process. That is, one can learn, become and embody adab.
Looking at the shape of the word itself, we can understand some of the inner movement essential to such a process (though all movement and power belong to God). To explore some of these movements, let us look at each letter in turn.
Alif is the first letter of adab. It is also the first letter of the entire Arabic alphabet. Significantly, it is the first letter of the Arabic word for God: Allah. It is written as a single stroke of the pen, often from top to bottom. In that sense, it symbolises the descent of God’s word, of revelation. All things begin with God’s action, with the descent of life-giving mercy. In the Quran, we read the following: ‘Surely His Command, if He wills a thing, is only to say to it, “Be!” and it is’ (36:82). Creation is initiated and maintained by Divine fiat, as is the knowledge God imparts to all things: ‘al-Rahman, taught the Quran, created man, and taught him eloquence’ (55:1-4). In that way, alif also suggests lightning to me: realising a new insight certainly does feel like being hit by lightning.
Moreover, in grammatical terms, an alif can be used as an interrogative particle to introduce a direct or indirect question. In other words, as well as being the first letter of Allah, it is also the first letter by which we respond to God, by which we seek to understand Divine revelation. Alif is the first letter of Iblis/Shaytan and thus our knowledge can become perverse if we don’t understand its Exalted Source in each new moment.
The alif thus represents creation, mercy and knowledge; and, in terms of adab, it symbolises our Adamic nature – our simple, innate human dignity. Looking at the letter, I am reminded of respectful posture, of relaxed poise and of balance. Adab thus begins with an acknowledgement of our natural dignity, of who and what we are as God’s viceregent upon earth (2:30). The vertical line also suggests that adab is a grace from God within the sacred centre of the heart; it marks a descent of mercy. Thus, we have true dignity when we stand in the centre of this divine rain, when we realise that our ability to see and act appropriately arise first in God. Indeed, it is to understand that all of actions take being from the Source of All Being. As we begin to grow into this awareness, a quiet space is opened out within our hearts – a place of stillness, in which we can hear the silent voice of Love. Stillness, openness and natural dignity are thus the necessary conditions for adab.
Dal is the 8th letter of the Arabic alphabet. Looking at the shape of the letter, I am struck by the fact that it is somewhat bent over. Indeed, it has always looked like a person sitting on the floor, looking at their feet. Dal thus represents an image of stillness – of sitting peacefully, in quiet reflection. It is also an image of consideration, respect and importantly, humility.
In a symbolic sense, therefore, it is the natural follow-on from the alif. Humility is the only way to open and develop that place of stillness within ourselves. But, humility does not imply servility. There is nothing servile about adab. Once we realise the many gifts Divinity has bestowed upon us, the natural response is to sit in grateful contemplation. It is perhaps no accident therefore that dal is also the first letter of the word du`a - ‘supplication’. Our response to Divine grace should be gratitude. It should also provoke us to reflection, to a consideration of the ways in which we impact upon the world around us. Untangling the knots of our unhelpful deeds takes deep thought and a real inward honesty. Only through such reflection can we begin to see what is truly called for in each new moment. That the letter dal appears to be bent over gazing at its own feet, reminds me that I must take great care as I walk through this world, that all of my actions have consequences, cause re-actions.
Calm reflection highlights another important facet: adab is an ever-unfolding process. I will never reach a point where I can say, ‘I’ve done enough and I have mastered adab‘. The moment such thoughts arise within us is an indication that we are merely beginning another stage in our education. Adab thus takes reflection, humility and remembrance: once we embody such qualities, we are in a true state of dhikr. Interestingly, the pregnant word dhikr (‘remembrance’) begins with dhal, the next letter of the Arabic alphabet. It is written in the same manner as dal, but with a single dot above it – representing this divinely-gifted light from above perhaps.
Adab requires us to be aware of our human dignity, and our connection to the Source. Sometimes strength is called for, whilst at others we are called to embody patience – we are called to deliberately lower ourselves, to lessen our perceptions of our own status and wisdom. Literally, we are sometimes called to ‘halve’ ourselves – to go from the alif to the dal. This is especially so in times of anger, where it can be extremely difficult to maintain our balance. The following tradition of the Prophet (alaihi al-salatu wa al-salam) is thus extremely interesting in this regard. The Prophet (sall Allahu alaihi wa alihi wa salem) said:
‘If any of you becomes angry and he is standing, let him sit down, so his anger will go away; if it does not go away, let him lie down’ (source)
Sitting down when angry, ‘halving’ our inflamed wrath, is thus a physical example of this symbolic truth. Context is thus essential. So, how then are we to develop our awareness of context, of what each moment truly demands of us?
Ba’ is the second letter of the Arabic alphabet. It is formed by a bowl-like mark, with a single dot beneath it. Ba’ is the first letter in the quintessential phrase of Islam – Bismillah al-Rahman al-Rahim (‘In the Name of God, the Most Compassionate, the Most Merciful’). This is no coincidence, I think. Indeed, our developing awareness needs to be sanctified, to be transformed into a sacred deed. This is precisely how the basmala is understood within the Islamic tradition, as a way of devoting an action to God. In the context of adab, therefore, our response needs the right beginning, the right opening, to be truly fruitful.
Looking at the shape of the letter, two images come to mind. Firstly, I am struck by this letter as a bowl, as an empty container. It is adab that teaches us how to lift that bowl towards heaven. It is adab that allows our empty bowls to be filled with the water of mercy, and with the wine of love. Because it is the last letter of the word, our empty cup needs to be prepared through divine grace and humility.
Secondly, I see an image of two hands raised in du`a. Adab requires prayer therefore. And an understanding that our prayers are in themselves an expression of Divine grace, as Ibn Ata’illah makes beautifully clear:
‘When He loosens your tongue with a request,
then know that He wants to give you something’
Looking at the dot beneath the ba’ is thus an important reminder of oneness: behind every duality stands a deeper unity – the beautiful oneness of the Divine Reality. Furthermore, that Reality is utterly beyond us, and yet strangely, manifest within each thing. Without the dot, the letter could not be recognised. Without the divine spark in all things, we could not recognise each other: la hawla wa la quwwata illa Billah. The dot also reminds me of a pivot, on which a spinning top whirls. The Divine Reality is thus the pivot on which we all turn; It is the very axis of Creation itself.
So, adab begins with the descent of grace, hidden deep within our frail humanity. It deepens through introspection, prayer and remembrance and ends in a moment-by-moment awareness of the unity of all things, and of the sacred connections between us all. And, in the final analysis, it is this awareness that causes us to turn, to whirl in joy and love around our Divine Source. Awareness of human dignity and human nothingness are the sparks which ignite the fire of love within us.
May God open out a place of stillness deep within every heart. May God bestow His limitless mercy and grace upon us all. May we all be blessed with a deep, living awareness of what is most appropriate, most fitting in each new place and moment.
And my last prayer is in praise of God, Sustainer of All the Worlds.
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- Mevlana and Me: Poetry, the Moment and Suhbah
- Learning to Talk: the Place of Adab
- Women, Prayer and the Coolness of My Eyes