Innovations that end up in wide practice

by Mohamedarif Suleman (Dar es Salaam, Tanzania)

Religion is not difficult to follow, for it prescribes the most reasonable and logical way to conduct oneself. These instructions contained in the glorious book and from the lives of the holy infallibles, are rather adequate in illuminating the path to a successful life, both here and now, and in the afterlife.

If we were to study the most prominent writings of authentic scholars, the code of life is usually surrounded on the premise of rights of others, obedience to the laws of the Creator and responsibilities of the self. However, over zealous individuals or those who wanted to deliberately pollute the clarity in matters of faith, started coining their own text extolling on practices that have nowhere been prescribed by the above twin sources, over a long period of time, a resultant confusion followed by adoption of practices and rituals ensued.

There are many instances of such acts or actions that have come to be a mainstay in contemporary religious practices, and many of them become harder to disprove with the passage of time. A compounding problem is our land of origin. Khojas (Khwajasa) emerged from the Indian sub continent, where formal conversion had taken place. Unfortunately, although the departure from idol worshipping had been attained per se, ther was a literal sense of embodying objects of worship to appease the heart, and this we can see is an ongoing struggle amongst our people, a few of whom fail to distinguish between messengers of Allah (SWT), his successors and deities (Devis or devtas).

Even today, we see many such new practices coming to the fore by virtue of our community’s expansive travel, to both India as well as the gulf region, which then offers its own set of practices, emanating from Islamic as well as pre-Islamic eras (pagan practices). It will be remembered that up until the 1990s, the atmosphere a Shaam e Ghariba nights would be dark and dull but filled with candles, and when these candles were circulated in the hall, many of our unsuspecting brothers, partook of the flame as a token of blessing. But as you can now imagine, the practice resembles profoundly, the Hindu ritual in an Aarti pooja. Not only that, for centuries, Persia was predominantly comprised of fire worshippers and this could have added to the overall influence, given that the rendition on these nights is usually in Farsi, the Persian language.

One such practice that took the community by storm was the obsession with the digits 786. Even today, it is pretty reputable to have these numbers imprinted on your car license plate or even your mobile number in many parts of East Africa. Ironically, not just Muslims, but also Hindus revere this number as both in turn claim of it as being a numerical representation of the verse Bismillah hir Rahman nir Raheem and Hare Krishna respectively.

Damodar Kumar Pamnani, in answering a public forum question, comprehensively provides an insightful understanding to this panache:

“786 is probably the most popular number in the Indian subcontinent. Irrespective of which religion an individual belongs to, most of the people here consider this number as “holy” or “lucky”. While most of the people of other faiths would not really know the reason behind it, Muslims would understand the significance as this number is believed to be a shorter or numeric form of Arabic phrase “Bismillah al-Rahman al-Rahim” which literally translates into “In the name of God, the Most Gracious, the Most Merciful”. The question however that even most of the Muslims would not be able to answer is that how does 786 mean Bismillah? How does “Bismillah al-Rahman al-Rahim” shorten up to 786?

The explanation behind this lies in the numeric or chronological order of the Arabic alphabet. For example, English Alphabet has 26 letters from A to Z. If you are to arrange these letters in a numeric order, then A would be number 1, B would be number 2, C number 3 and so on with Z finally getting assigned the number 26. The same way, there are two known ways of arranging the Arabic alphabet. One is Alphabetical method which also applies to all other alphabets of other languages. In this method, we put the letters in a certain order. Like the English alphabet is arranged as A,B,C,D …. Z. Here A always comes first and Z always the last. Same way, Arabic alphabet is arranged as Alif, ba, ta, tha etc where Alif always comes as the first letter.

There is however another and a lesser known method of arranging Arabic letters. This method is known as Abjad or ordinal method in which each letter of the alphabet has an arithmetic value assigned to it. This value necessarily is from one to one thousand. In this method, the letters are arranged in the following order, Abjad, Hawwaz, Hutti, Kalaman, Sa’fas, Qarshat, Sakhaz, Zazagh.

So if we are to look at the complete Arabic alphabet, the arithmetic values assigned as per the Abjad method are as follows:


Alif – 1
Baa – 2
Jeem – 3
Daal – 4
Haa (small) – 5
Waaw – 6
Zaa – 7
Haa (big) – 8
Tau – 9
Yaa – 10
Kaaf – 20
Laam – 30
Meem – 40
Noon – 50
Seen – 60
Ayn – 70
Faa – 80
Saud – 90
Quaf – 100
Raa – 200
Sheen – 300
Taa – 400
THaa – 500
Khaa – 600
Thaal – 700
Dhaud – 800
Thau – 900
Ghayn – 1000

Hamza is not included in the table above because it has the same numeric value as Alif because it is the letter which marks the glottal stop in Arabic.

Based on the numeric values above, if we break “”Bismillah al-Rahman al-Rahim” in arithmetic values, we would get the following numbers. We are taking all the letters used in the phrase and the arithmetic values assigned to it.
Baa: 2
Seen: 60
Meem: 40
Alif: 1
Laam: 30
Laam: 30
Haa (Small): 5
Alif: 1
Laam: 30
Raa: 200
Haa (big): 8
Meem: 40
Noon: 50
Alif: 1
Laam: 30
Raa: 200
Haa (big): 8
Yaa: 10
Meem: 40

If we add all these numeric values, the sum total would be 786 and that is how this number is used as a shorter or numeric form of the phrase “”Bismillah al-Rahman al-Rahim”

The interesting thing to know here is that this practice is not from the time of the Prophet nor mentioned in the Quran. This arrangement of Abjad method was done much later, most probably in 3rd century of Hijrah during the ‘Abbasid period, following other Semitic languages such as Phoenician, Aramaic, Hebrew, Syriac, Chaldean, etc. This was merely the practice of some of our pious predecessors in India who decided to use the Abjad method and came up with the number 786. For the rest of the world, this number holds no greater value or significance. It is something that Indians came up with and only people from Indian sub-continent or from the countries of India, Pakistan and Bangladesh believe in.”

The Holy Qur’an laments on numerous occasions that groups of people regularly belied the message of Allah (SWT) on the pretext that their forefathers used to act thus. However, the dictates of the Holy Qur’an are pretty clear and we should remain wary of amalgamating elements that, at worst, may be tantamount to shirk.

About the author

Mohamedarif is a marketing professional and educationalist with a penchant for writing as a hobby since childhood. As he experimented writing about sporting events at first and then current affairs, he quickly developed a skill for observation of his environment and began to write on reform topics, especially in connection with the community. To further feed his pursuit of writing, he founded several newsletters and bulletins at his school and at the Husayni Madrasah in the 1980's, all the time learning from others already in the field not just about writing, but also about pre-press and production processes. He was also the editor-in-chief of the Knowledge Magazine in 1995–1996. A decade later, importing a flurry of ideas into his new home, Nairobi, he first founded a two page community newspaper then became a regular writer of the Friday Faculty before establishing the Community on Friday, a fully fledged Madrasah magazine in 1996. And while his writing at the community continued, he simultaneously started writing for a business weekly, pairing in with his newfound role as a marketing professional. During his time in Nairobi, he wrote several speeches for sitting chairmen and presidents while also giving some himself, developing his concurrent role as a public speaker and trainer.

With changing times and a decrease in advertising sponsorship, as well as a fall in overall readership, Mohamedarif transformed this publication into an electronic blog. Thus was born the Community on Friday in its present format.

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