Gateways to the Qayyúm al-Asmá' of the Báb:
Some Introductory Notes Based on an Examination of its Surah

By Stephen Lambden

First presented at the Irfan Colloquia Session #88
Bosch Bahá'í School: Santa Cruz, California, USA
May 28 – June 1, 2009
(see list of papers from #88)

    The around 400-page Arabic Qayyum al-asma' (mid. 1844 CE) of Sayyid `Alí-Muhammad Shírazi, the Báb (d. 1850 CE) is not an easy book to comprehend. It is a kind of commentary on the Qur'anic story of Joseph (Q. 12) but much more besides. One way in which to approach this first major revelation of the Báb is to examine an aspect of its form and content through a study of its Surah or chapter titles. These titles were listed by the Báb himself in his Kitáb al-fihrist (Book of the Index) and perhaps other writings. They form gateways to the earliest thought of the Báb and provide keys for approaching major themes in his earliest essentially eschatological proclamation.

    While the around 6,200 verses of the Qur'an are divided up into 114 named Surahs, the Qayyum al-asma' has a total of 111 Surahs. The names of the surahs in both these sacred books often derive from key words in the text of the surahs so described or entitled. The surahs of the Qayyum al-asma' mostly include `rewritten type' expository comments upon the successive 111 verses of the Surah of Joseph of the Qur'an (= Surah 12 containing 111 verses). Each of the 111 Surahs of the Qayyum al-asma' is around 3-5 pages long, having around 42 Arabic verses of varying length in rhyming prose (saj'). The total number of verses in the Qayyum al-asma' is thus around 4662 (= 111 x 42).

    Around fifteen of the Qayyum al-asmá' (= QA) Surah titles (about 10%) are identical with those of the Qur'an; including the first Surat al-Mulk (Surah of the Dominion = QA1 + Qur'an 67), the fifth Surat Yusuf (Joseph = Q. 12) and the seventy fifth `Surat al-Shams' (The Surah of the Sun = Q. 91). Other clusters of Qayyum al-asmá' Surah titles theological such as the Surat al-Tawhid (= the `Surah of the Divine Unity' = Q. 112) and the Surat al- al-`Ama' (= the `Surah of the Divine Cloud', QA. 10). Some are cosmological such as the Surat al-`Arsh (the `Surah of the Throne' = QA. 16) and the Surat al-ma' (The `Surah of the Watery Expanse', QA.22).

    Deep allegorical, non-literal interpretations of the Qur'an and traditions are frequently encountered in the writings of the Báb. This is true of his early Qayyum al-asmá' or Tafsir Surat Yusuf (`Commentary on the Surah of Joseph', mid. 1844), Kitáb al-Rúh (Book of the Spirit, c.1844-5) and other writings and letters, which claim to express aspects of the ta'wíl (inner exegesis) or báṭin (deeper) senses of the Qur'an or indeed, of "everything" (kull shay'). In the Qayyum al-asmá' the figure of Joseph and his 11 brothers -- making up the twelve `tribes of Israel' -- are interpreted in imamological and numerological terms when linked to the twelve letter kalimat al-tawhíd (la ilaha illa Allah = "There is no God but God"). This level of interpretation is reflected in several Surah titles.

    Several Surah titles of the Qayyum al-asma' are distinctly esoteric, reflecting Shaykhi perspectives and the Báb's interest in the `ulum al-ghayb (the `Esoteric Sciences'). Surah 65 of the Qayyum al-asma' is entitled Surat al-Ghayb (The `Surah of the Unseen'). Others bear such elusive names as the Súrat al-Iksír (`The Surah of the Elixir' = QA. 58), the Surat al-Tarbí` (= QA 64 + 94, `The Surah of the Rectangular-Fourfold'); the Súrat al-Bá' (= QA 83: `The Surah of the [Letter] "B" (al-bá')' and Súrat al-Tathlíth (= QA 95); `The Surah of the Threefold'). Alchemical, talismanic and other esoteric terminology is fairly common in the writings of the Báb. While Shaykh Ahmad (d. 1241/1826) was widely regarded as a master of the esoteric sciences by his awestruck successor Sayyid Kazim Rashti (d. 1259/1843) and others, the Báb claimed to communicate their deepest latter-day secrets. For him the `ulum al-ghayb (`esoteric sciences') often pointed to his messianic purpose and mission which is reflected in certain of the Surah titles of the Qayyum al-asma'. At least seven of the Qayyum al-asmá' Surah titles are suggestive of the Islamic esoteric sciences (`ulum al-ghayb). Perhaps 32 titles are eschatological connotations (e.g. Hujjat, the Proof = 48) while around 14 are suggestive legalistic titles (e.g. Surat al-Ahkam = 50+51+104-5). Six or more Surah titles include Shi`i-Shaykhi Islamic terms such as the Surat al-`Ashura ('The Surah of the 10th [of Muharram]'= QA.12) and the Surat al-Rukn (`The Surah of the Pillar' QA. 55).

    In this paper the Surah titles of the Qayyum al-asma' will be listed, categorized and commented upon. It will be evident that the Qayyum al-asma' is much more than a neo-Qur'anic text or a new Bábi Qur'an. As the Báb explicitly states, it provides a deep, batin (inner) dimension to Islamic sacred scripture. Through subtle yet bold, often rewritten exegesis of the Qur'an, it opens up the reader to a new era in the understanding the Qur'an consonant with the imminent advent of the messianic Imám, the expected Qá'im. For Bahá'ís this first major work of the Báb also includes cryptic predictions of the Bahá'í revelation in the person of the eschatological Imám Husayn, returned as Bahá'u'lláh.

this paper is not yet online