Arabic Arithmetic – the Abjad Numerical System

With the Name of Allah

Ever wondered what all that Arabic numerology is based on?  Here is a brief introduction to the Abjad numerical system.

Arabic Arithmetic – the Abjad Numerical System

Here’s another interesting example and puzzle, given with precisely the same wording by both Ibn Kathir (in al-Bidayah wa l-Nihayah, his history of the world) and Suyuti (in his Tarikh al-Khulafa’ or History of the Caliphs, Mu’assasah al-Kutub al-Thaqafiyyah, Beirut, 2nd ed., 1417/1996, p. 394 under the section on Al-Nasir li Din Allah who lived 553-622 and ruled 575-622, his reign including the reconquest of Jerusalem by Saladin in 583/1187).  The verbatim reproduction by Suyuti suggests that he took this from Ibn Kathir:

One of the strange matters [connected to the reconquest of Jerusalem] is that Ibn Barrajan mentioned in tafsir of “Alif Lam Mim: The Romans have been conquered” [Qur’an, 30:1-2] that Jerusalem would remain in the hands of the Crusaders (al-Rum) until the year 583, when they would be vanquished.  Jerusalem would be conquered and remain a Land of Islam until the end of time.  He derived all this from the arithmetic of the ayah, and it is precisely what happened.

Abu Shamah said: What Ibn Barrajan mentioned is a wondrous coincidence, for he died ages before the event, his death having occurred in the year 536.

(End of quote from Ibn Kathir & Suyuti)

Now, Ibn Barrajan’s arithmetic is puzzling.  Here are the Abjad values of the first two ayahs of Surah al-Rum:

1. Alif Lam Mim: 71

2. Ghulibat al-Rum: 1432, 277

The question is, how did he arrive at the year of the reconquest of Jerusalem?

The only way I can get anything to work is to use ayah 2 only, plus the Surah number (30) and the ayah number:

1432 – 277 + 30 + 2 = 1187, the CE date of the reconquest of Jerusalem which can be converted to the equivalent Hijri year.

Note that the subtraction at the beginning might be justified from the words that literally translate as “Conquered – The Romans.”

Would anyone like to comment on the following questions and notes?

(1) Was this indeed Ibn Barrajan’s arithmetic?

(2) Is there another explanation, perhaps involving a different version of the Abjad numbering (there were two different schemes in use historically: Eastern & Western) ?

(3) Did Ibn Barrajan really make this prediction, or was it interpolated into his manuscript after the event?

(4) The prediction as stated was fulfilled and remained true for almost eight centuries, but is no longer true ever since the Israeli occupation of Jerusalem in 1967.

(5) In the end, this is no more than a mathematical distraction, for the Qur’an is primarily a collection of Signs and Guidance for humanity in our journeys towards God.

Another example of numerology

Ibn Kathir quotes from the early authority Abu l-‘Aliyah that the mysterious letters may denote lifetimes of nations: “Alif is one year; Lam is thirty years; Mim is forty years.”[1]

He also quotes a narration that he dismisses as not authentic, to the effect that some Jews at the time of the Prophet (peace be upon him) speculated that the Prophet’s followers would rule for periods denoted by the mysterious letters.  The narration specifically mentions the following groups of letters: ALM, ALMS, ALR and ALMR, for which the numerical equivalents add up to 734 years of rule.  Ibn Kathir then remarks, “If this method is correct, one would have to add up the values of all fourteen of these letters, which would equate to a large figure.  If you calculate taking into account repetition [of groups of letters at the beginning of different surahs], the value will be even greater, and Allah knows best.”[2]


[1] Ibn Kathir, Tafsir, Maktabah Dar al-Fayha’, Damascus/Beirut, 1413/1992 (4 vols.), vol. 1, p. 39 under Qur’an 2:1

[2] Ibn Kathir, Tafsir, Maktabah Dar al-Fayha’, Damascus/Beirut, 1413/1992 (4 vols.), vol. 1, p. 41 under Qur’an 2:1.  Note that Ibn Kathir miscalculates the value of ALMS, forgetting the L, so he gives the total as 704.  The results of the calculations he suggests at the end are 1757 and 3385 years respectively, as detailed in this table: Numerical Values of the Mysterious Letters of the Quran

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6 Responses to “Arabic Arithmetic – the Abjad Numerical System”

  1. zubair malik Says:

    i think all this is conjecture

    it is usually possible to make most numbers by adding/subtracting/multiplying/dividing – rather like the number game in countdown

    • usamahasan Says:

      Yes, trying to get 583 or 1187 from those numbers was a bit like playing Countdown! It’s just that great scholars like Abu Shamah, Ibn Kathir & Suyuti went along with this idea.

      Btw Carol Vorderman of Countdown fame was an undergrad at Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge. The college is nicknamed “Sainsbury’s” since the supermarket opened right opposite the entrance. Our excellent A-level chemistry teacher at the City of London School, Mr. Stephen Cotton (a Derby County fan), was also an undergrad at the time, one or two years her junior. That was his claim to fame!

  2. Hafsa Hashmi Says:

    not only is this conjecture, it distracts from the more important things both in the Quran and in life itself.

    • usamahasan Says:

      Thank you. Yes, I mentioned that under point no. 5 above.

      We and our children should learn the numerical system, since it is a fact that the letters have numerical values in classical Arabic. It also helps us to link the world of letters and language with that of numbers and mathematics, which are two immense realms of Divine and human knowledge.

  3. sidnur Says:

    As-Salam alaykum
    I’ve seen the two tafseer, the big one, and the Idah al-hikma, that is the one ibn al-arabi says that abu al-hakm makes the prediction, and just it is said the date without any numeric operation, just a reference to another possible lecture of the ayat (galabat and gulibat ). The numeric operation is in the margins and it follows ibn arabi operation in the mawaqi al-nujum. In one of the manuscripts of the tafseer there is an annotation in the margin in Persian, but neither reference in the text. May be it can be found in others manuscripts or on other book of the author, but as far as I know, and allahu alim, there is not such source for this saying about ibn barrajan.
    Salam
    Nuruddin

    • Usama Hasan Says:

      wa ‘alaykum as-salam, Nuruddin. Thank you very much for that. Any chance you could provide the mathematical operation from the Mawaqi’ al-Nujum?

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