Peace, one and all…
‘Those who find the Beloved in the letter alif need not open the
Quran to read it.
When they blow with the breath of love, the curtains are
Heaven and hell are their slaves, made to serve them.
I give my life for those, Bahu, who enter the state of unity’
(Sultan Bahu, trans. Jamal Elias)
Alif, the first letter of the Arabic alphabet, is written with a single downward stroke of the pen. It therefore symbolises the descent of revelation, of the sending down of divine grace (tanzil). As the first letter, alif begins the entire sequence, being thereby the first recognisable character. In other words, all things begin with and in the Divine. The Quran states this clearly: ‘Surely His Command, if He wills a thing, is only to say to it, “Be!” and it is’ (36:82). This is further underlined when it is remembered that alif is the first letter in the Arabic definite article (al). Or, more precisely, lam is the definite article itself, the alif is required to vocalise the sound properly. Perhaps this tells us that every sound, every vocalisation, every conceptual ability, is a gift from the Divine. Perhaps it also tells us that God’s action is necessary for anything to come to pass – it is only the descent of grace (here symbolised as the alif) that allows us to speak (the lam). Lam is interesting here, because it begins a number of key phrases: la ilaha illa Allah (‘there is no deity except God’) and la hawla wa la quwwata illa billah (‘there is no power or might except in God’).
As such, the alif symbolises the moment of first definition, and thus of creation itself. The divine creative potential descends into the naked universe in each new moment and in each new place. It is perhaps no surprise then to remember that each God’s beautiful Names begins with this alif: i.e. al-Rahman, al-Latif and so on. This universe is thus a kind of theatre, in which the infinite qualities of God are manifested before (and within) us. And lest we think otherwise, these qualities are all part of the infinity of Divinity Itself: alif is also the first letter of the word for God in Arabic, Allah. Allah is often understood to be the Greatest Name, as it combines all of the other Names and Qualities within Itself; it is the comprehensive Name. As the alif is written with a single stroke, it is also the number one. It is thus a powerful symbol of the Unity of All Things. God is al-Ahad (the Singular, the One, the Unique).
Beautifully, alif also speaks of our human connection to the Divine. It is the first letter of the word Adam, father and progenitor of humanity (alaihi al-salam). We receive our human nature via the descent of divine grace, as a literal gift from heaven. The alif also points towards our origin, offering us a means of orientation. Alif begins the word iman (often rendered as ‘faith’ or ‘belief’). Faith in God, beyond every boundary and limitation, is what guides us home. Iman is itself the ‘rope of God’ (3:103) and the ‘most trustworthy handhold’ (2:256). As Mevlana eloquently points out, iman is the essence, beyond every external difference:
’Someone asked: ‘What is greater than prayer?’ Mevlana said: ‘One answer is that the soul of prayer is greater than prayer, as I have already explained. A second answer is that faith (iman) is greater. Prayer is a series of daily actions, while faith is continuous. Prayer can be dropped for a valid reason, or can be postponed, but it is impossible to drop or postone faith for any excuse. And where prayer without faith gains nothing, as in the case of hypocrites, faith without prayer is valuable. Another point: while the prayer of every religion is quite different, still, faith does not change from religion to religion. The states that it produces, its place in life, and its effects are the same everywhere…’ (Mevlana Rumi, Fihi ma Fihi, Discourse 8)
Alif is the first letter of the word adab – a truly pregnant term, whose most comprehensive meaning is ‘appropriate action‘. Awareness of what is most appropriate, most fitting, in each new moment allows us to develop and expand our relationship with others, and thus with Divinity Itself. The alif is also used in Arabic as an interrogative particle. In other words, it is used to formulate questions – questions about God, about ourselves and about the meanings of things. The ability to think, talk and ask questions is fundamental to what it means to be human.
In closing, thinking with the first letter of the alphabet in this way can allow us access into the very heart of what it means to be alive, and what it means to be human.
wa akhiru da’wana an il hamdu lillahi rabbil alameen.