A Commentary on the Saying "Knowledge is Twenty-Seven Letters"Juan Cole
published in Letters & Essays 1886-1913, pages 181-193
Los Angeles: Kalimat Press, 1985
In the Name of God, the Possessor of Grandeur and Splendor.
After giving praise in the court of glory, and expressing my thanks and gratitude in the most holy presence of the sovereign of the kingdom of names ['Abdu'l-Bahá], who is refulgent in the world of creation in the ornament of servitude to God, the Lord of the earth and the heavens, I give my greetings to Áqá Sayyid Asadu'lláh, visitor to the blessed threshold. May God confirm him in that wherein lies his glory and give him success in that wherein lies his exaltation and happiness.
You asked about the saying of Imám Ja'far as Sádiq [d. 765 A.D.], which was quoted in the Book of Certitude. The text of the saying is as follows: "Knowledge is twenty-seven letters. All that the Messengers have brought is only two letters, and the people to this day know only these two letters. When our Promised One arises, he will reveal the other twenty-five letters."
You said the Ná'ib Ridá Qulí Khán - may God aid him to serve His cause in the shadow of the banner of his Covenant - expressed a wish that you supplicate the holy presence of the Master for a commentary on this saying. But since you saw with your own eyes the burden of work that weighed down the Master of the worlds, you dared not approach him with such a request. You then asked this feeble servant for an interpretation of the saying. As I am also suffering from several maladies, and in addition lack the necessary books on reported sayings of the Imams, I cannot fulfill the duty of adequately explaining the saying. Nevertheless, I am obedient to your command and shall present a brief commentary.
The Imam meant to indicate with these statements the supreme greatness of the Last Day, in every respect, over the days of past Manifestations. Since the greatest cause of the progress of nations is knowledge and sciences, that holy one set up a vast range of knowledge as the criterion for proving that the day of the Advent of the Promised One is greater than any other day, By means of this delicate phrase he prophesied to those with hearts that the Sun of reality on that triumphant Day will shed twenty-five degrees more light than in days gone past, and that the rain of compassion from the sky of bounty will be far increased over that in the time of previous messengers.
For if those endued with sight examine fairly the signs accompanying this Most Great Theophany, and the tokens that signaled the Manifestations of the past, they will bear witness to the supremacy of this blessed Manifestation and to the truth of the holy saying. They will arise to thank and praise God for the advent of the Promised Day. This meaning can be gained from numerous sayings of the Imams of guidance. But the ravages of chronic diseases, and the necessity of obeying the Master's command that I complete the refutation of objections made by heedless souls, prevent me at this time from discoursing on this matter at length. If the wondrous blessings raining down on me from the Master of humankind - Abdu'l-Bahá, the glory of all who are in the realm of creation-should aid me, I will expand on this subject in another place.
Among the oral reports from the Imams with a similar significance is another saying that is also cited in the Book of Certitude from The Book of the Worlds (Kitab al-'awálim) by 'Abdu'lláh ibn Núru'lláh al-Bahrayní. The Imam said, "Every piece of knowledge has seventy aspects, but the people possess only one. When the Promised One arises he will disseminate the other aspects among the people." Another reported saying giving the same meaning is in the section on the life of the Promised One in the volume on the Occultation of the Twelfth Imam, Oceans of Light [Bihar al-anwár, compiled by Muhammad Báqir Majlisi (d. 1699)]. It was related by Humrán from Imám Báqir, Ja'far's father, who said, "It is as if I see that this religion of yours will always be enslaved and tested with its own blood, and it shall only be returned to you by a man who is from among us, the People of the Prophet's House. He will give you two bestowals each year and will nourish you twice each month, You will be granted wisdom in his time until the woman gives decrees in his house according to the Book and the custom of the Messenger of God."
In each line of this noble saying a sea of knowledge lies concealed, but to discover it requires time and leisure. The source for all these authentic sayings about the vastness of the range of knowledge and science is the blessed verse "And the earth shall shine with the light of its Lord," which was revealed in the Surah of the Companies. This point is known to the people of insight, that God did not intend by "the earth shall shine" to refer to the radiance and splendor of the literal sun. For from the beginning of creation, every twenty-four hours the earth is illumined by the rays of the outward sun, nor is this a special feature pertaining only to the Promised Day.
Rather, the verse refers to the light radiating from the Sun of Reality, that is, from the Manifestation of the Cause of the Lord of Grandeur, That is the light of knowledge, the radiance of science, the shining rays of justice and security, the gleaming of the arts of civilization and true humanity, unblemished by the darkness of ignorance and vileness. It will issue from no place but the heavens of divinity, and blaze forth from no one but the Manifestation of the Cause of God. Naught but these blessed rays can deliver the world from the gloom of abasement, the afflictions of warfare and bloodshed, and the vices of evil and bestiality.
Note that approximately seventy years have passed from the advent of the Primal Point, through the day when the sun of the most holy beauty of Bahá dawned forth, to the time when the daystar of the sublime Covenant is shining. During this time, the divine Pen has been in motion and the showers of lordly teachings have been heavily raining down, It is clear that the holy writings are the heavenly rainfall that causes the human world to bloom and become fresh and makes the flowers of human virtues and goodly qualities flourish. The hidden depths of the verses in the holy books thereby become manifest, and the truth of the Qur'án verses, which the ignorance of the Muslim clergy, in taking them literally, had rendered doubtful among laymen, is clear and obvious.
Through these writings fine manners are introduced and just laws are established. False, delusory, and fabricated beliefs are eclipsed and in their place are firmly fixed genuine doctrines in accord with reason and sound judgment. In sum, the world is newly adorned from east to west, and knowledge and science encircle the entire globe. May the soul of Bidil be happy, who said,
From this holy creation, this magnificent trumpet blast.
Indeed, let them merely consider the talks, Tablets, answers, and discussions of the Master of the worlds which flowed from the most holy pen during this journey to the vast regions of Europe and America in gatherings, meetings, churches, and schools at the request of great sages and philosophers, priests, and leaders. Let them compare these with the writings of former times, that they may discover the difference between two letters and twenty-five, or between one and seventy. They would see the distinction between a very light drizzle and a thundering downpour, between the trickling of a small spring and the huge waves of a billowing, surging ocean.
Although this blessed journey has lasted only two years, not more, numerous volumes of his talks, in the Persian, Arabic, English, and French languages, have been printed and published and distributed widely in all countries. These holy talks were not delivered after meditation and deliberation, or at leisure-not at all. Rather, in every situation they were revealed intuitively, spontaneously, extemporaneously, powerfully, and independently. For visitors and the public left that holy being no time or opportunity to ponder their questions. At all times a multitude of respected souls from distant lands, whether Iran, India, the various countries of Europe, or America arrived and pleaded that they be allowed to attain his presence, Naturally, the kindliness of the exponent of the Cause of God forbade that he should deprive them or offer them excuses or pleasantries.
Not at morning, noon, or night did the ill and feeble frame of that exemplar of loving-kindness and compassion have an opportunity to rest, that he might have time to meditate or ponder, Moreover, each of the illustrious persons who met with him or attended gatherings where they asked him to speak, questioned him on obscure theological puzzles, religious enigmas, or the details of how to combat the ills afflicting human society, Most of them returned intoxicated and rejoicing; even that small minority that is habitually disobedient were seen to be silenced, subdued, and unable to reply or object.
The majority, who returned devoted and joyous, wrote and published accounts of what they had seen in learned journals or major newspapers along with descriptions of the characteristics, virtues, and biographical details of that sacred life. They made clear the meaning of the blessed verse: "And the day We shall raise up from every nation a witness against them from amongst them" in the Surah of the Bee. That is the grace of God; He gives it to whomever He wills, and He is the All-Encompassing, the Knowing.
These are the manifest and unconcealed signs of the most great and glorious Manifestation, which have been described and may be easily confirmed by anyone. As for the hidden tokens of this mightiest and most splendid of Theophanies, which have appeared in the worlds of matter, these are also differentiated from the secret signs that accompanied the past Manifestations. The difference is as clear as the sun in the midday sky. For the signs that arise at the dawning of the Sun of guidance, like the light rays shining from the sun in the sky, are of two sorts. One sort is that which the generality of the people perceive, and the other is such that only mature souls can discern it.
For instance, every eye can see the rays of light emanating from the sun in the sky, but their hidden effects on the motion of atoms in the inner depths of three kingdoms of nature are witnessed by none but learned and wise souls, In the same way, everyone can behold the verbal signs uttered by the Manifestations of the Cause of God, but they are unable to perceive the effect of their manifestation in the universe, and the changes in the worlds of matter and the spread of knowledge that they produce, It is universally recognized by philosophers that the manifestations of Moses, Jesus, and Muhammad, the Seal of the Prophets, caused universal transformations in nations, or rather, throughout the globe. Their appearance bestowed a new form to the world; thereby, the extent and range of the sciences increased.
It was necessary that I explain this difficult premise briefly, Now I can continue: From the foundation of humanity until the arrival of the Day of God and the Most Great Manifestation, material knowledge and sciences concerned with building up the physical world, such as the sciences of philosophy, mathematics, and literature-and their branches, such as technologies, arts and crafts-were limited to a particular people or country. Everyone else remained deprived and passed their lives in ignorance and servitude.
For instance, there was a time when India, the birthplace of Hinduism, was the dawning-place of the lights of knowledge and virtues and the center of arts and technologies. The European languages were derived from Sanskrit, a branch of the Aryan language. Civilization spread from that people to the Romans. The other continents of the earth, such as Europe, the rest of Asia, and Africa, were unknown and abject, and their people passed their lives in ignorance and abasement.
There was also a time when the Nile valley was a splendid center of knowledge and science, when gratefulness for Egyptian arts and technologies stole the heart of the rest of the world and the war cry of the pharaohs set the limbs of the nations quaking. In another age the nation of Iran, during the reign of the Kayanian monarchs, was a light-giver to the world in its arts, sciences, and knowledge. Zoroaster arose from this Semitic country. All the countries of the world were enthralled under the shadow of this empire and took pride in emulating the Iranians.
Likewise, the Assyrian and Chaldean peoples had their day in the sun. The inhabitants of Babylon and Nineveh shed the effulgence of their knowledge and arts on the world. Then came the turn of Greece, and the sciences and arts of the philosophers of that nation-and the military conquests of Alexander the Great-reached great countries. From the magnificence of Greece, it was not long until the breaths of revelation wafted from the Hijaz, and the Arab kingdom and the Islamic religion were founded, The rays of knowledge and science shone through the efforts of the caliphs of Syria, Iraq, Egypt, and Spain to illuminate half the globe. The Arab conquests subdued mighty nations.
From the time of the Muslim empire, only a few centuries elapsed before the lights of sciences and arts shown forth from Europe. The sun of knowledge and civilization rose in the West and completely disappeared from the rest of the world. The banner of the power and authority of the Western states was raised, and the ensign of material civilization became manifest and triumphant. Ignorance and enslavement spread in the rest of the countries. Thus did things proceed in past ages.
Very briefly, we have sketched out how sciences were monopolized in past ages and bygone times, But in this most radiant, most noble century and appointed time, the age wherein the Sun of guidance has risen, the Day of the advent of the most holy, most glorious Manifestation [Bahá'u'lláh, note how the spread of knowledge has become general. The flags of the universal spread of the arts to all the countries are streaming. Thus, ancient peoples have stirred and disseminated knowledge to their own people including the Indians, the Chinese, the Turks, the Tatars, and in the West the Greeks, the Serbs, and the Bulgarians. But more, even abject countries and primitive peoples like the Sudanese, the Berbers, and the unlettered tribes of Africa and America have come to consciousness. They have risen and stepped forward to open schools, found councils, spread virtues, and promulgate learning.
It is no exaggeration to state that all the denizens of the globe, in all their diversity, have reached agreement on the need to spread the sciences. This is one of the greatest proofs for the dawn of the Sun of reality, one of the most perfect indications that the Day of God has arrived and the Hour has struck. This point was also made in the predictions and prophecies of the ancient holy books. For instance, consider Daniel 12, which specifies the date of the Last Day, the advent of the Blessed, Most Glorious Beauty, the redemption of the people of Israel and the progeny of Abraham from their abasement and sore trials.
According to the Arabic translation published at Oxford University in 1890, after prophesying the rise of the Manifestation of the Cause of God, he says in 12:4: "But you, Daniel, shut up the words, and seal the book, until the time of the end. Many shall run to and fro and knowledge shall increase." In 12:10 it is written: "Many shall purify themselves, and make themselves white, and be refined: but the wicked shall do wickedly; and none of the wicked shall understand; but those who are wise shall understand."
Such statements, abound in the books of the prophets, but in view of the duty laid on me to write another and more important piece, in obedience to the command of the Master, I beg to be excused from discoursing on this subject any further. In sum, I have boldly made clear some of the implications of the noble saying in its parable of the twenty-seven letters, showing how it applies to events in this dispensation.
My dear and honored friend, one thing yet bewilders me. The will of God decreed that three dawning, shimmering, gleaming luminaries should rise over the radiant horizons of Iran, signs of the arrival of the Day of God which were prophesied and affirmed in the celestial scriptures. The springs of heavenly knowledge and learning have flowed from that land of paradise, bringing true life and divine power and might, But in spite of all this, most of the people of that country are standing immobile in the gloom of remoteness, have taken refuge in idle fancies and heedlessness, and are confounded, athirst, and bewildered.
This is so even though the Seal of the Prophets [Muhammad] reminded the people of Islam in numerous places that, in the time of the end, Iran would be the dawning-place of knowledge, religion, and faith, and that the sun of a new Cause and eternal life would rise over this luminous horizon, This point was clearly made and recorded in authentic oral reports and in Qur'án commentaries respected by both Shí'ís and Sunnis. I shall mention the original sayings [in the Arabic] without translating them [into Persian], in bringing this essay to a close. I beg to be excused from providing details or discussing them at length.
As for the sayings of the Imams from the House of the Prophet, it is related in the fine commentary of Tabarsi, Compendium of Explanations [Majma' al-bayán]: "When the verse in the Surah of Women was revealed. 'If He will, He can put you away, O men, and bring others/ the Prophet slapped Salman [the Persian] on the back with his hand and said, 'They are this people.'"
Yáqút, in his definition of the word "Iran" in his Dictionary of the Countries [Mu'jam al-buldán], also related this saying. That is to say, both Sunni and Shí'í have agreed in transmitting this oral report. Then there is the renowned saying recorded in the collection of authentic traditions [Masábih as-sunnah] compiled by Bukhari, of which few scholars are unaware: "The Prophet-peace be upon him-said, if knowledge were in the Pleiades, the hands of men from Iran would grasp it."
In the chapter on virtues in Lamps of Tradition [Masábih as-sunnah], a collection of the genuine oral reports from the six authentic compendiums, the following saying is recorded with a sound chain of transmission from the Prophet:
The Messenger of God - may the peace and blessings of God be upon him and his House - recited this verse from the Surah of Muhammad, "If you turn away, He will substitute an other people instead of you, then they will not be your like."
The compiler of the Lamps of Tradition also recorded another saying in this chapter, quoting the original transmitter of the oral report:
We were sitting with the Prophet - may the peace and blessings of God be upon him - when the Súrah of the Congregation came down and this verse was revealed: "And others of them who have not yet joined them."
At this point we will bring our discourse to a close, imploring at the threshold of the Glorious Lord that the Iranians might awaken from their horrifying nightmare.
[22 August 1913]
The outskirts of Alexandria.
 'Abdu'lláh ibn Náru'lláh al-Bahrayní, Kitáb maqtál al-'awálim (Tabriz: Dir Tibá'at al-Hájj ÍIbráhim at-Tabrizí, 1878).
 Muhammad Báqir Majlisí, Bihar al-anwar, 107 vols, (Tehran: al-Maktabah al-Islamiyyah, n.d.) 51, ch. 12.
 Qur'án 39:69.
 Qur'án 16:89.
 Although Sanskrit and most living European languages are related, and Sanskrit is much older, both the indo-Iranian and the European languages are descended from a common ancestor, Aryan.
 The text reads "Ibrahim Zardushí," as Mirzá Abu'l-Fadl seems to have confused Abraham with Zoroaster. Zoroaster and his people probably did not speak a Semitic language, though powerful kingdoms existed in western Iran where Semitic languages were spoken.
 Qur'án 4:133.
 Qur'án 47:38.
 Qur'án 62:3.