Saturday, July 7, 2012

Q 74:30 - Nineteen Guardians of Hell

I just started reading Kingdom of Strangers, by Zoe Ferraris, which opens with the discovery of the bodies of nineteen females, who had been murdered, mutilated, and buried in a sand dune. Reflecting on the number of victims, one of the police officers refers to a verse in the Qur'an (74:30) which states that there are nineteen guardians of Hell. This verse, because of its use of this particular number, has always been one of my favorites. I do not think for a moment that the appearance of the number nineteen in this verse is in any way random or trivial. Rather, I am confident that it is a highly deliberate, extremely sophisticated, complex trope, designed to humble even the most erudite Qur'an scholars of any era.

The number nineteen displays a variety of interesting mathematical properties, including the fact that it is a prime number (a number divisible only by itself and one). It is also the number of constituent hexagons in the only non-trivial normal magic hexagon, but for those of us who don't engage in number theory or visual recreational mathematics, it might be difficult to see how any of this would be significant to our understanding of Hell, or the Qur'an for that matter.

The number nineteen also possesses a long history of associations and interpretations in the mystical systems of several ancient civilizations. For example, from a cosmological perspective, nineteen defines the Metonic cycle, which was used by the Babylonians, Hebrews, Greeks, and Chinese to predict the occurrence of solar eclipses. However, within numerology, and more specifically within gematria (the assignment of numerical values to letters of the alphabet and their subsequent interpretation), nineteen has remarkable significance.

Within Islam, nineteen is the number of letters in the basmalah, the invocation that appears at the beginning of all but one of the chapters (surahs) of the Qur'an. When the letters of the basmalah are converted into their numerical equivalents, the total is 786, which some Muslims use as a numerical shorthand for the invocation.

The number nineteen is also highly significant in Baha'i, a religious tradition that emerged in Persia in the 1840s, with deep roots in Islam, where it symbolizes, among other things, the dynamic tension between the one and the many, unity and plurality. This association is based on the observation that the numerical equivalent of the word for one (wahid) is nineteen. The centrality of the number to the Baha'i faith can be seen in the fact that its calendar consists of nineteen months of nineteen days.

The most extensive, and by far the most controversial, effort to establish a mystical relationship between the number nineteen and the text of the Qur'an, was proposed by the Egyptian-born, American biochemist Rashad Khalifa, who carried out a complete numerical analysis of the Qur'an, and set out to establish his own school of thought with Islam. He was assassinated in Tucson, Arizona, in 1990, after a fatwa was issued against him by the Islamic Legal Council of Saudi Arabia, for his heretical ideas.

I have not progressed far enough yet to know just exactly how Ferraris develops her use of this number or the related verse in her novel, but I'm sure I'll have something to say about it when the time comes.