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From the disconnected letters to the science of letters: a meeting of knowledges in the Middle East

Des lettres isolées à la science des lettres : un carrefour de savoirs au Proche-Orient

من الحروف المقطعة إلى علم الحروف، تجمع المعارف في الشرق الأدنى

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Published on Thursday, June 09, 2022

Abstract

In order to interpret the disconnected letters of the Qur’an (ḥurūf muqaṭṭa‘a), Muslim thinkers have based their work on esoteric concepts, sometimes handed down from Antiquity, which have flourished in Islamic lands under the name of the science of letters (‘ilm al-ḥurūf). This international symposium aims to study the various representations of the mysterious letters within the wider framework of the science of letters, and to put them in perspective against similar readings from languages and cultures close to Arabic. Part of the symposium will be held in the historic citadel of Erbil in the heart of ancient Mesopotamia, “the land of the two rivers”, the cradle of early writing.

Announcement

Argument

Exegetes of the Qur’an have competed in addressing creatively the question of the enigmatic disconnected letters (ḥurūf muqaṭṭa’a), also known as the Qur’anic openings (fawātiḥ al-suwar) that introduce certain suras. Some have taken them as a source for meditation or have perceived in them direct allusions to the names of God, and have made them the basis of a cosmogony, going so far as to consider them to be ’the origin of all things’ as well as ’the secret of the Qur’an’. Others attributed an operative nature to them and used them in various magical or therapeutic applications. Denis Gril and Pierre Lory, through the numerous works they have devoted to this subject, have made it possible to gain a better understanding of the theme of the ’science of letters’ (ʿilm al-ḥurūf), a speculative process with multiple aspects, in which the script of the letters, their pronunciation, their order in the alphabet or their cosmological correspondences are put forward in turn and examined in relationship to each other, and in which the question of the disconnected letters of the Qur’an plays a central role. Such concepts are present in some of the founding works of Sufism, for example in the Risālat al-ḥurūf attributed to Sahl al-Tustarī (d. in 896/283), or the Šarḥ maʿānī al-ḥurūf of ʿAbd al-Raḥman al-Sulamī (d. in 1021/411), and even run through the entire work of some authors such as Ibn al-ʿArabī (d. in 1240/637) or ’Aḥmad al-Būnī (d. in 1225/622).

Speculations similar to those of the science of letters exist in the cultures and religions of the territories that were conquered by Islam, and these have inspired Muslim thinkers. Thus, for Ibn Sīnā (d. in 1037/428), the disconnected letters of the Qur’an could be a crypto-language that could be deciphered with the help of Pythagorism. The Greek philosophical heritage is also notable in authors such as the Iḫwān al-Ṣafā (9th, 10th century), Ibn Masarra (d. in 931/318) or Ibn al-’Arabī. This gnosis of letters leads us, as does the collective work Mysticism and Language (1992) edited by Steven T. Katz, to the question of the concept of sacred language and the complex position of language when it comes to penetrating the domain of the supra-rational. However, other scholars have chosen to study the disconnected letters without recourse to Islamic tradition, preferring to develop new hypotheses on their meanings, as Martin Nguyen points out in an article he published in 2012 on the issue of Sunni exegesis of the disconnected letters.

In recent years there has been a resurgence of interest in the occult Islamic sciences and in particular the ‘magical’ aspects. This has been fuelled by publications of such as works as ‘Islamicate Occultism, New Perspectives’ in the special issue of Arabica in 2017, or the collection of papers published under the title ‘Islamicate Occult Sciences in Theory and Practice’ in 2021. A detailed analysis of the concepts developed by Islamic exegesis on the subject of the mysterious letters would provide another step forward in this vast field. What are the methods that commentators use to arrive at the primary (or ultimate, ta’wīl) meaning of these letters – these glyphs (’ayā) whose true significance is known to ‘God alone’, or perhaps also to those ‘rooted in the science’ (Cor. 7/3) ? Could the historical parallels with the ‘lettrist’ concepts of the Kabbalah and of some of the ancient Christian Gnostic sects (Perates, Ophites, Marcosians) shine some new light on the question ? After the 13th century of Ibn al-‘Arabī, of ’Aḥmad al-Būnī and the committal to writing of the Zohar, the most important work of the Kabbalah, a few new religious currents emerged, linked to Islam, such as Yazidism, Hurufism or the Bahāʼí faith. The historical and doctrinal links of these religions to Sufi theology, and their clear interest in a knowledge of letters and numbers, also merit to be explored further. Finally, in recent decades the Muslim world here has seen intense scientific activity directed to the study of numbers in the Qur’an. This subject too can be touched on in the framework of this symposium. In spite of the many obstacles that arise, in particular from the separation of disciplines, it is essential to bring together the various fields and areas in order to enrich a study that has a universal dimension.

Topic Proposals

The presentations will address the following topics :

  • The disconnected letters and the idea of Ta’wīl
  • The philosophical approach to letters : from Iḫwān al-Ṣafā to Ibn Sīnā
  • Fawātiḥ and symbolism in Ibn al-‘Arabī
  • Letters in local minority faiths : Yazidism, Hurufism and the Baháʼí Faith
  • The Science of Letters in the Aramaic Christian gnosis and in the Hebrew Kabbalah : what parallels are there with the Science of Letters in Islam ?
  • Arithmetic in the Qur’an and contemporary studies on the mysterious letters.

How to apply

Proposals for papers (title and abstract, approximately 1500 characters) accompanied by a short biography of the author must be sent to the following address : nadirboudjellal@gmail.com

by Friday, 19th of August 2022

Proposals and papers may be written in French, English or Arabic. A reply will be given at the end of the same month.

Ifpo will cover travel, accommodation costs and meals in Paris for the duration of the event.

Organization committee

  • Nadir Boudjellal (Inalco (Paris)/CERMOM/Ifpo(Erbil)),
  • Pauline Koetschet (CNRS/Ifpo),
  • Jean-Jacques Thibon (Inalco (Paris)/CERMOM)

Academic committee

  • Nadir Boudjellal (Inalco (Paris)/CERMOM/Ifpo (Erbil)),
  • Pierre Lory (EPHE (Paris)/LEM),
  • Jean-Jacques Thibon (Inalco (Paris)/CERMOM)

Other informations

This colloquium is organized by Ifpo [French Institute for the Middle-East] and will be held at the Citadelle of Erbil in the locals of Ifpo Erbil on Saturday 5th and Sunday 6th of November 2022.

Places

  • Citadelle d'Erbil, locaux de l'Ifpo
    Arbil Governorate, Iraq

Event attendance modalities

Hybrid event (on site and online)


Date(s)

  • Friday, August 19, 2022

Attached files

Keywords

  • lettres isolées, science des lettres, ésotérisme, lettrisme, sciences occultes, ḥurūf, ta'wīl, Ibn al-ʿArabī, kabbale

Contact(s)

  • Nadir Boudjellal
    courriel : nadirboudjellal [at] gmail [dot] com

Information source

  • Nadir Boudjellal
    courriel : nadirboudjellal [at] gmail [dot] com

License

CC0-1.0 This announcement is licensed under the terms of Creative Commons CC0 1.0 Universal.

To cite this announcement

« From the disconnected letters to the science of letters: a meeting of knowledges in the Middle East », Call for papers, Calenda, Published on Thursday, June 09, 2022, https://doi.org/10.58079/1920

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