By Farouk M. Topan
One of the most interesting and profound verses from the ginans is, to my mind, the opening verse of Sayyid Imamshah’s ‘Aad thaki…’. The content of the first two lines have little in common with the theme of the nine verses that follow them; however, they have been placed at the beginning of the ginan in a skilful way that is designed to provoke thought and to elevate the human mind from mundane and insignificant ritual trappings (which are described graphically) to thinking about the deeper significance of creation. The ginan was, of course, directed specifically to the unconverted of the Sayyid’s society, and it has to be understood within that context. This makes the universal message of the opening lines even more striking. They state:
Aad thaki ek sunya nipaya
tare sunya mathi Shabd nipaya
It is not an easy verse to translate, and, here, I gratefully acknowledge the help of Alwaez Abdulrasul Mawji whose comments on these lines I found so illuminating. A simple translation is:
(1) In the beginning there was a void
And the Word was created out of (that) void
Implicit in this, through nipaya, is the presence, will and act of the Creator, for nipaya here signifies both creation and sustenance. Hence, not just the Word, but the void that preceded it, too, was created and sustained by the Creator within His presence and by His will. What, then, is this “void?”
In attempting to answer this question, one is faced with the inevitable difficulty of selecting words with the most appropriate meaning. And we use words, of course, within the reality and realm of our present world, dominated by concepts of time and space. We find it “natural” to think in spatiotemporal terms. It is thus easy to conceive of a “void” as capable of “preceding” or being “superceded” and to define it negatively as “nothing” or “an emptiness” or even as a “vacuum.” This is the difficulty inherent in the translation and paraphrase of the first line which can be represented as:
(3) (In) time there was no-space
and one feels uneasy with such a statement. The reason is the apparent contradiction within it: for, the relationship between time and space is such that the absence of one almost “automatically” invalidates the presence of the other in one’s mind; an acceptable symmetry would be:
(4) (In) no-time there was no-space
(4), incidentally, is not the same as:
(5) there was no-time no-space
for, in (4), “(In) no-time” is the locative referent within which is located “no-space.” Returning to (4), we find that no-time and no-space are in complete consonance with two of the Creator’s many attributes, that is, of being subject neither to time nor to space. Time and space are His creations, (created for a purpose), and they exist by His will. A paraphrase of (4) is:
(6) there was a state when neither time nor space existed
Since that “state” existed/exists within the Creator, its existence is intrinsically implied by the existence of the Creator. The statement that the Creator, with no-time/no-space attributes, exists, incorporates within it the sub-statement that the “ state” of no-time/no-space exists. The “state” may be subsumed, without mention, in a rephrasal of (6), thus:
(7) The Creator, with no-time/no-space attributes, existed/exists
And here, again, one becomes conscious of language as an inadequate medium of spiritual thought; for, “no-time” and “no-space” are rather poor expressions for describing a fraction of that all-encompassing capacity of the Creator wherein are merged apparent opposites into an everlasting positiveness. The Creator is within/without time; He is within/without space. For this reason, I find “timelessness” and “spacelessness” even poorer alternatives.
The comment, so far, has been on the first line of (1). The second line mentions the creation of the Word (Shabd). The Word was created from the “void,” that is, from the “state” of no-time/no-space within the Creator, and it, too, has the attributes of no-time/no-space: the Word transcends time and space as we know them. A paraphrase of (1) is:
(8) The Creator created from within Himself The Word, within/without time, within/without space
The “void” now ceases to be a void of nothingness, emptiness and vacuity. Instead, the connotations of sunya as “zero” are replaced by positive ones associated with the state of no-time/no-space within the Creator. (This interpretation makes it difficult for me to accept an interpretation I have heard advanced, in which the first line of (1) is varied to Adam thaki….with the translation: “For the sake of Adam, the Word was created….”
Creation per se is a wide subject of study and appreciation. It is a beautiful phenomenon that goes on without our knowledge minute by minute, second by second, in infinitesimal fractions of time, without and within Man. There are many verses in the Holy Qur’an on different aspects of creation. The origin of our immediate surroundings is mentioned in the following:
“To Him is due the primal origin of the heavens and the earth; when He decreeth a matter, He saith to it: ‘Be’ and it is.” (Surah Al Baqarah, 2:117).
The perpetual nature of creation is mentioned in:
“It is He who beginneth the process of creation, and repeateth it…” (Sura Yunus, 10:4).
The repetitive process of creation indicated above is paralleled on the human, personal level in dhikr: the constant and repetitive remembrance of the Word through meditation. Dhikr is, in a sense, a creative process of spiritual awareness and progress. Human consciousness is subjected, breath by breath, through Word-force, to the consciousness of the Sublime: it is gradually elevated beyond the frontiers of time and space as we know them with our senses, and submerged into the “void.”
The Word from the void has the power, if so willed by Him, to take us into it, and, beyond.
This is a brief personal note on the opening lines of Sayyid Imamshah’s Ad thaki…. . It is, essentially, a subjective — and largely intuitive — comment. Another famous ginan which opens with a statement on the Word and the practice of dhikr (the main theme of its 150 couplets) is the Brahm Prakash.
Date article posted on Simerg: December 22, 2010
The above piece originally appeared in Ilm, December, 1975 (Volume 1, Number 3, Salgreh Issue) under the title A Brief Intuitive Note on the Void. The magazine was published by the Ismaili Tariqah and Religious Education Board for the United Kingdom (formerly known as the Ismailia Association).
Dr. Farouk Topan is currently based in London with the Aga Khan University’s Institute for the Study of Muslim Civilizations as its interim director. He previously held the positions of a Senior Lecturer and Chair of the Department of Africa at the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, where he had earlier received his PhD. From 1997 – 1993, Dr. Topan was a Research Scholar and Head of the Teacher Training Programme at the Institute of Ismaili Studies (IIS). He has published widely in books, journals and encyclopaedia on various aspects of Swahili literature, religion and identity in East Africa including a volume co-edited with Pat Caplan, Swahili Modernities: Culture, politics and identity on the East Coast of Africa (2004). He had previously edited the Journal of African Languages and Cultures (JALC), and its successor, the Journal of African Cultural Studies, published by Carfax. Dr. Topan is also a playwright; one of his plays entitled Mfalme Juha, The Idiot King is a set text within the secondary school curriculum in Tanzania.
We invite you to read Dr. Topan’s excellent article, Ethics in Kalam-i Mawla of Hazrat Ali, which appeared on this Web site in five parts.
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