As soon as I saw this Persian copper dish on eBay my antennae started twitching. It didn’t quite look like this, though. Thirty years of tarnish had made the design quite difficult to make out. But the eleven pointed star at the centre was unmistakable, and that’s what caught my attention first.
Eleven sided figures are unusual and the only Islamic example I know of is the turquoise dome of the tomb of Shah Nimatullah Vali in Iran. It’s not possible to make an exact division of a circle into eleven with a straight edge and compasses, but there is a clever approximation that produces a hendecagon (or hendecagram) whose distortions are not noticeable. Few traditional artisans seem to have known about this, however. But this wasn’t the reason that the eleven sided star aroused my curiosity.
It’s not widely understood, but artefacts such as this can be used to encode meanings using the Arabic numerological system known as the hisab al-jummal (sometimes referred to as the abjad system). However they don’t give up their secrets easily and — as far as I am aware — there are no textbooks on this subject.
I knew the significance of the eleven pointed star was that eleven stands for the Arabic word hu (or huwa — the letter waw doubling as a long vowel or consonant) meaning ‘He’, referring to the Divine Identity. But as I looked at the picture on eBay, I noticed another interesting numerical property. The pattern was made up of exactly 78 elements (including the central star). And the number 78 encodes the Divine Name Hakeem, the Wise. So I knew it had to be!
The next day I travelled over to Harrow-on-the-Hill (a delightful part of West London I hadn’t visited before) to pick up the dish from the Iranian woman who was selling it. As I travelled back with it on the Underground, I realized that there was far more to it than I had already intimated. I looked for other aspects of the design that might encode further concepts. Another common way of embodying a message — at least, so I have learnt — is through the number of individual line segments. The pattern on the dish had exactly 110, which corresponds to the Divine Name ‘Ali, the Eminent. (There were also 44 birds, which encodes another important concept, but is not directly relevant to this story).
When I got it home, I started to clean it. It was then that I realised it was made of copper rather than bronze, as the vendor had told me. Copper is a metal with some rather unusual properties and it is always interesting when it is used in an object of this kind. I also realised that there was still something I was missing. In the Qur’an, and indeed elsewhere, Divine Names are often combined in pairs. For instance, the combination of Rahman and Rahim — as in the formula Bismillahi-r Rahmani-r Rahim (In the Name of God, The Most Compassionate, The Most Merciful) — is perhaps the best known example (others include Hayy and Qayyum, Qabid and Basit, etc.) I couldn’t remember, however, seeing the Names Hakeem and ‘Ali associated together. But I then noticed a design of feathers around the edge of the dish which suggested it had been designed to convey a further numerical code.
The number of feathers was 278. 278 is not a number that corresponds to any Divine Names, but it is the numerological equivalent of one of the sets of mysterious letters, the muqatta’at, which appear at the beginning of some of the chapters of the Qur’an. Some of these appear in several suras, others in only one. 278 corresponds to the letters حم عسق ha mim ‘ayn seen qaf which only appear at the beginning of the Sura ash-Shura, ‘The Consultation’. This seemed to be an important clue.
Reading the Sura, which is one of the shorter ones, I came to verse 51. “And it is not for any human being that Allah should speak to him except by revelation or from behind a veil or that He sends a messenger to reveal, by His permission, what He wills. Indeed, He is Most High and Wise.”
“Indeed, He is Most High and Wise…” In Arabic, إِنَّهُ عَلِيٌّ حَكِيمٌ (Inna)hu ‘ali(yun) hakeem(un). The exact three Names encoded in the eleven pointed star, the number of geometrical elements and the number of line segments.