Number and Allegory from Ancient Mesopotamia and Greece to Islam

Noor Bosra

Table of Contents

Introduction – 1

Part I
Chapter 1: The Cradles of the Abrahamic Religions – 9
Chapter 2: Plato and His Tradition – 41
Chapter 3: The Philosophy of Plato – 53
Chapter 4: Judaism and Christianity in Historical Perspective – 71
Chapter 5: Jewish Christianity and the Naṣ ārā – 91
Chapter 6: The Origin and Development of the Bible – 115
Chapter 7: A Brief History of Islam – 131
Chapter 8: The Compilation of the Qur’an – 147
Chapter 9: How Greek Science & Philosophy Reached the Muslim World – 161
Chapter 10: History of Islamic Philosophy – 177
Chapter 11: A Historical-Critical Study of the Quran – 197
Chapter 12: Controversial Muslim Thinkers – 213
Chapter 13: Interview with Youssef Seddiq – 231

Part II
Chapter 14: The Shell and the Kernel (Al-Qishr wa al-Lobb) – 249
Chapter 15: The Quadrivium – Arithmetic – 265
Chapter 16: The Quadrivium – Astronomy – 285
Chapter 17: The Quadrivium – Geometry – 315
Chapter 18: The Quadrivium – Musical Harmony – 335
Chapter 19: The Platonic Great Year – 347
Chapter 20: Plato’s World Soul – 371
Chapter 21: Decoding the Code – 385
Chapter 22: Noah’s Flood – 403
Chapter 23: The Sleepers of the Cave (Ahl al-Khaf) – 429
Chapter 24: Jonah (Yunus) and the Whale – 447
Chapter 25: Alexander the Greek (Dhu al-Qarnayn) – 463
Chapter 26: The Macrocosm and The Microcosm – 487
Chapter 27: Contemplation – 505
Appendix: Discourse on Alexander by Jacob of Serugh – 525
Licenses and Copyright notices – 545



God has placed in each human being a desire for truth. He has then planted us in a beautiful but deeply puzzling universe. This book is for those who understand that this is not an accident but a truly divine plan and who seek to respond to it with heart and mind.


“By using questions and answers without envy , there bursts out the light of truth “

Plato , Seventh Letter

I was ten years old when my religious studies teacher told me the story of Noah and the Ark. It was then, at school in my hometown in the Middle East, that I had the thought which would years later inspire me to write this book. Nothing struck me as particularly perplexing about the flood itself, nor the idea that it had been sent as a punishment for humanity’s sins. But there was one detail which I simply could not fathom, and filled me with curiosity from that moment on: how could Noah have lived for 950 years?

I decided to ask my teacher just this in our next class. But he did not appreciate my curiosity. Sternly, he replied: “this was the will of Allah, and we should not ask such questions. God, as the Creator of the universe, is capable of creating a human to live to any age He wills”. He would not say any more on the matter, for he had made clear that whatever was written in the Qur’an was to be accepted literally. To even speculate would be considered a sin. Obeying my teacher, I tried to forget about my question.

But several weeks later, my curiosity resurfaced once again when I learnt about another story in the Qur’an: Jonah and the Whale. My teacher explained how Jonah had been swallowed up by an enormous whale and remained inside its belly for three days and nights. I could not comprehend how a human being could have survived in the belly of a whale for this length of time. How was it possible that he stayed alive, in the pitch-black darkness of an animal’s stomach, with no food, water or even air? And why three nights, as opposed to any another number?

Bravely, I approached my teacher with my question once again. This time he erupted with anger. He insisted that these stories were miracles of Allah, and that I must not question them but simply accept them as they are. He even threatened to report me to the headmaster and call in my parents for a disciplinary meeting if I ever asked such questions again. Afraid to face his temper once more, and more afraid still of disappointing my parents, my headmaster and, most importantly, Allah, I decided to listen to him. From then on, I never openly questioned the stories in the Qur’an. But never did I cease to question them in my own head. Though I was now forbidden from expressing it, my inquisitive spirit had not been extinguished. If anything, it had been ignited.

Years passed, and after graduating from university I moved from my hometown to the West where I pursued my postgraduate studies and my career. I was now in an environment where I could take my questions in all kinds of directions. Multitudes of different ideas, belief systems, and methods of thinking were at my disposal, providing me with the opportunity to finally investigate the meaning of what I had been taught during my childhood. I began to delve once again into stories in the Qur’an such as Noah’s Ark and Jonah and The Whale, this time able to look for the answers to those burning questions: what was the real meaning of the 950 years that Noah had lived, or the three days and nights that Jonah had spent in the whale?

It soon became clear to me that I should study the numbers in the Qur’an in depth. I decided to do so because, firstly, I had always had an aptitude for mathematics, and was able to identify certain numerical patterns. Secondly, I had always felt intuitively that the many stories in the Qur’an were not factual accounts but allegories. From studying ancient books, I had become familiar with the use of metaphorical devices as mediums through which meanings could be transmitted efficiently to future generations. It occurred to me that numbers have a unique allegorical function; while words can be miscopied, mistranslated, or edited over time, numbers usually remain unchanged even when their meanings seem absurd or unlikely. In light of this, I devoted myself to studying all the numbers in the Qur’an, and arrived at a question that filled me with the same profound curiosity I had felt as a child hearing the story of Noah’s Ark for the first time: do the numbers in the Qur’an possess a hidden meaning?

I searched and read almost every book I could find on the subject. Upon consulting Islamic sources, however, I found any trace of an answer to be elementary and unconvincing. I realised I would need to draw on a wider range of sources, and so proceeded to study both the Old and New Testament. When doing so, I realised that the Bible too contains a veritable mine of numbers. Overwhelmed by what I found, I began forming a list comparing the numbers in the Bible and the Qur’an. It was not long before numerous coincidences were brought to my attention, with many of the same numbers appearing in both texts.

Having read the Bible, I continued to expand my horizons and researched the belief systems and ancient texts of a vast range of traditions, such as the Chinese I Ching; The Indian Vedas; The Egyptian Book of the Dead; the Jewish Kabbala; Rosicrucianism; Plato’s dialogues; the Theosophy of Blavatsky; the Anthroposophy of Steiner; and the psychology of Carl Jung, among a myriad of others. Some aspects of these I incorporated, and others I rejected. Having probed so many schools of thought and their relationship with numbers for several years, I finally arrived at the theory at the heart of this book. This theory is that there is a numerical code that emerged in ancient Mesopotamia, became embedded in the Torah and the Gospels in Alexandria, and appeared later in the Qur’an: the key to its profound meaning can be found in the inspired writings of Plato.

Having arrived at this theory, I decided to ask my own family and acquaintances from a wide spectrum of religious and cultural backgrounds whether they thought it was viable. When I presented them with my research and the working title of “Plato and the Qur’an”, their reactions generally fell into two categories:

1. The first reaction was one of contention, mostly from the family members and acquaintances belonging to my older generation. They felt my field of research to be too controversial, fearing that it would undermine the literal meaning of the numbers disclosed by Allah in the Qur’an. They were of the view that there is simply no room for analysis when it comes to the content of the scripture; their comments echoed those of my schoolteacher.

2. In contrast, the second reaction was one of curiosity and intrigue, and came predominantly from those belonging to younger generations who were born, raised, and educated in the West. They were extremely keen to see my findings revealed and published, with many of them expressing a desire to see the book available to everyone in the hopes it would console others like them who sought answers to questions that were often forbidden to ask.

The feedback from the second group was enough to inspire me to pursue this book. But both opinions proved constructive in their own right. It occurred to me when speaking to many of them that, despite being highly educated, they had little or no knowledge about other religions, or in some cases even their own. With this observation it became apparent to me that, in order to effectively communicate my findings, it would be necessary to thoroughly introduce the historical backgrounds of the subjects concerned. It is for this reason that almost half of the chapters of this book address the context of my ideas in substantial depth, in the hopes of equipping every reader with the background needed to understand my theory.

This book is divided into two parts. The first covers the history of the wisdom traditions of the ancient world, from Mesopotamia to Ancient Greece. It then moves onto Judaism and Christianity (and Jewish Christianity); the origin and development of the Bible; and lastly the emergence of Islam and the Qur’an. The second part delves deeper into numerical codes known among the ancients, looking especially at Plato and the knowledge of the Quadrivium. It then reveals the presence of this code in the Qur’an, focusing in particular on four stories, towards offering a new interpretation of its esoteric contents.

Those in the field of Qur’anic studies may be eager to ask: how does my approach compare to others, and where can it be situated within the discipline in both the Islamic and Western worlds? It is first worth summarising the current state of this discipline and how it came to be.

Arguably, Qur’anic Studies – which, throughout most of early Islamic history, had comprised a plurality of interpretative methods – began to decline around the beginning of the twelfth century, for reasons that will be explained in this book. All that was produced afterwards amounted to little more than recycled work under different titles; that is, however, until the nineteenth century, when the first generation of Western Qur’anic studies academics began to undertake scholarly examinations of the Qur’an using the same methods of critical analysis that the Jewish and Christian scholars used to study the Bible. But these scholars adopted a view of the Qur’an and its origins that were unquestioningly committed to that presented by the Islamic tradition itself, taking for granted its historical reliability. During the last century, however, a second generation of Western scholars have begun to question those traditional Islamic narratives of the Qur’an’s origin and early development.

This second generation of scholars undertook the important task of addressing some of the potentially unreliable sources and erroneous chains of historical transmission within the Islamic tradition. However, their efforts were often underscored by motives to discredit the tradition altogether. The studies of these scholars were met with considerable resistance at first, and perhaps justifiably so. However, their critical approach must be commended for inspiring the new, third generation of Western Qur’anic studies scholars, who have continued to confront the simplistic narrative about Islam’s origins propagated by tradition. This generation of scholars has been opening the possibility of assembling new understandings of how the Qur’anic text came to be and offering different interpretations of its meaning which may differ from traditional accounts, while at the same time respecting Islam and not attempting to undermine its truth claims. This movement has been largely positive in scrutinising the Qur’an as an object of historical study through scholarly methods that are mostly untainted by polemical motives.

Around the same time that this third generation of Western scholars emerged, in the beginning of the twentieth century, a number of Muslim scholars, thinkers and writers attempted to emulate their methods. They were themselves believers who sought only to offer different interpretations of the Qur’an and traditional Islamic narratives, with no intention of renouncing or disproving their faith. Unfortunately, they were attacked ruthlessly by self-made gatekeepers of tradition who accused them of sins like apostasy, causing many of them to flee their countries. The predicament of such individuals will be discussed in Chapter 12.

My book is one that follows the general approach of the most recent generation of scholars, but is unique in its degree of intertextuality; it draws on a whole plethora of sources and traditions, many from well outside the periphery of Islam. Furthermore, my approach is not only intertextual, but is also what could perhaps be called “supra-textual”; that is, it goes beyond texts, drawing on ancient and esoteric Laws of nature that have formerly regulated every aspect of human activity since ancient times; laws that have provided a canonical standard for all arts and sciences, such as the geometry of monuments and sculptures, music, astronomy and the art of government, and which, according to Plato, preserved for over 10,000 years the stability of the Egyptian culture.

The numerical ratios, of which the law is essentially composed, were also applied to metaphysics and theology. Divine names, the architectural dimensions of temples and numbers of verses in the Holy texts and hymns were all coded with the hidden law, manifesting as symbols, myths or allegories which were known only by initiates into the mysteries. These laws are just as essential to this study of the Qur’an as any other texts, and have previously been touched on by such individuals as Schwaller de Lubicz, George Gurdjieff, Henri Corbin, Bligh Bond, René Guénon, John Michell, Keith Critchlow and other distinguished interpreters of the genuine esoteric tradition.

It is crucial for the reader to know that the esoteric numerical system I present in this book is not an invention of my own, but one that has been known and used throughout ancient history by the Pythagoreans, the Kabbalists and other mystical sects. What is unique about my work, however, is my development of a set of formulas towards understanding how this code can explain the meanings of numbers in the Bible and the Qur’an, without the use of the Gematria (the common practice of assigning a number to each letter). To my knowledge, this is the first time that this ancient numerical code has been applied to the Qur’an.

Inevitably, my approach will be a controversial one. However, it is my belief that everyone should have the freedom to express their opinions, thoughts, and research openly and without fear of consequences – so long as this does not involve spreading hate or harbouring prejudice. As I see it, in the field of learning there is no orthodoxy and heresy but only the search for truth, involving reasoned conjecture tested against evidence. My theories and interpretations of the Qur’an should not be taken as a replacement or substitute for the many other interpretations, but an additional contribution to what already exists. I strongly believe that a new interpretation will never be the last one, since it is an ongoing process; I accept that new discoveries may eventually overwrite my work, and perhaps my theory will simply perish and be forgotten. But until then, I offer this theory in the hopes that it will, at the very least, open up new avenues of inquiry.

I recognise that, for believing Muslims, there are particular theological challenges posed by my approach. These stem from the belief that the Bible and other texts perceived to be sacred in other traditions were, unlike the Qur’an, not revealed or inspired by God as a holy book. As a result, for many of these Muslims, drawing certain connections between the Bible and the Qur’an, or indeed Plato and the Qur’an, would be considered heretical. I am thus aware that some believers may refuse to accept the numbers of the Bible as a prerequisite for decoding those in the Qur’an. Furthermore, since Plato is deemed an “unbeliever” by most Muslims, many may ask why his numbers should be invoked to understand the Qur’an.

To answer this question, I would say that the Qur’an, the Bible, Plato’s dialogues, the Greek mythologies, the Sumerian and Babylonian myths and all other works of ancient civilisations, cultures and mysteries, are no more than separate chapters in a larger corpus: that corpus is the Collective Conscious and Unconscious Minds of Human Race. Let us be clear about the fact that there is no religion that has arrived from vacuum or from nothing; all have been the culmination of long processes of development. There is thus no reason not to trace parallels between one system of belief and another, and to probe the possibility of shared origins. After all, truth does not contradict truth; if the Qur’an does indeed communicate objective metaphysical realities, then why should those objective metaphysical realities not manifest elsewhere? For those who are still sceptical about invoking non-Islamic sources in a study of a universal sacred text, I leave these words from the Sufi Master Ibn ‘Arabī, which encourage us to open ourselves up to the wisdom contained within traditions outside of our own:

“There was a time when I reproached my neighbour
for belonging to a religion other than my own.
But now my heart welcomes one and all:
My heart is a meadow for gazelles to graze,
A cloister for monks,
A temple for idols,
A Ka’ba for pilgrims,
The tablets of the Torah
and the book of the Koran.
I have embraced the religion of love,
Wherever its steed may go,
This religion is my religion and my faith…”

Ibn ‘Arabī (1165 – 1240 CE)

Chapter 3

The Philosophy of Plato

“The unexamined life is not worth living.” – The Apology of Socrates, 38a

Symbolised by his dream of fowlers trying hopelessly to capture a swan, Plato’s philosophy is renowned for its elusiveness. To those uninitiated, the teachings contained within his dialogues can feel at times impenetrable; far from laying out his ideas in a transparent fashion, they entail the gradual and subtle unfurling of truths through the presentation of interlocutors with differing points of view. At no point does Plato himself appear in his own dramas to tell the reader what he thinks; only the most perceptive of minds can begin to ascertain this. A contemporary scholar of Plato and his philosophy has written that “The gap between what Plato says or, more accurately, what Plato’s characters say, and what Plato means, is potentially an abyss. It is possible to leap into that abyss and never be heard from again.” Despite the risk of falling into this abyss and the inevitability of facing the various obstacles that hinder a sufficient grasp of Plato’s thought, we must persevere in asking the question: what is the philosophy of Plato, and why has it persisted to be a beacon of light for two and a half thousand years?

To begin, a small number of fundamental affirmations can be made to guide an initial exploration of Plato’s philosophy:

Firstly, the whole of reality is the effect of a First Cause or First Principle which unfolds its goodness and power in ordered stages. Plato usually calls this great source of all the One or the Good – although in other places he simply calls it God.

Secondly, these ordered stages comprise two great systems which are linked (because they are both manifestations of the One). The first of is an order of eternal and stable beings called “forms” or “ideas”; they are invisible, immaterial, and dynamic, and shape the second of the two great systems. This second order is the manifested world of time, the world we perceive with our senses – but the fact that it can be understood by our reason and intuition clearly indicates that those primary forms sit behind, so to speak, the material world and its complexities. At its simplest we can see that because two and two always make four when added together, two apples added to two apples will always be four apples. Change the apples into any other two material objects, and their addition will still result in the stable and predictable sum of four.

Thirdly, Plato understands the self of each human being to be a soul. The soul is considered to be a knowing, life-giving, self-motivated essence more akin to the forms of the eternal order, but with the power to bring life and movement to the material body (which, of course, belongs to the visible and material world). Since it is the soul which knows and makes decisions, directing the body and its environment in the best way it knows, the whole of Plato’s philosophy can be understood as “the care of the soul” – strengthening its ability to know and direct the life that lies before it. Only in this way, he thought, can the human being discover the divine substratum within soul; the divine ground which it shares with the whole universe.

Fourthly, Plato does not detach the theory and knowledge of philosophy from the living of it. He frequently invokes the concept of arete – a Greek word translated as “virtue” or “excellence” – which refers to the actualisation of philosophical truths in one’s moral character. In fact, Plato claims that full knowledge is not possible unless we attempt to live by what we know, writing in his Seventh Letter that “a thing of this kind cannot be expressed by words like other studies, but by long familiarity, and living in conjunction with the thing itself, a light as it were leaping from a fire will on a sudden be enkindled in the soul, and there itself nourish itself.”

Fifthly, since the nature of all things derives from the first cause, and the secondary causes which spring immediately from it, Plato’s philosophy is “top down”; that is, his primary investigations are always directed toward immaterial causes rather than material effects. This is only a question of emphasis, however, and Plato does not ignore the outworking of reality in the material world. Aristotle, who was considered to be a Platonist by most thinkers in the ancient world, can be thought to have merely adjusted the emphasis, at least to some degree, towards the material ordering of things. In the Phaedo, which is set in the prison cell of Socrates on the day of his death, Socrates mocks the suggestion that the question “why is Socrates sitting on the bed in his cell?” is answered by references to bones, muscles and sinews holding him in that position and that place. If it was up to them, he says, he would be running over the hills to the safety of the first town outside the state of Athens – but instead, he sits there because he judges it is the best and most just thing he can do. For Plato, things happen primarily because of immaterial causes (the judgement of what is best) and only secondarily because of material causes (the mechanics, in this instance, of the body).

Plato’s insistence that true understanding can only follow from this top-down approach aligns with most ancient philosophies and religions from around the world. It stands in a sharp contrast, however, with the multitude of modern attempts to build philosophies from the bottom up. Wisdom, for Plato, flows down from principles and causes, not up from their effects – just in the same way that a great work of literature springs from inspiration, not the possession of a dictionary.

Perhaps there is one other important theme which runs through much of Plato’s writings: that of the philosopher-king. For him there is a profound parallel between the organisation of the human self, the state (or indeed any human collective) and the universe itself. In each of these organisations there is a place for a unitive principle in whose hands the ultimate power of ruling lies, buttressed by a greater number of subsidiary governors and finally a multitude, who contribute to the whole but who look to the ruler and the subsidiary governors for direction. In the human self, the governor is (or should be) the reasoning and intuitive soul. Meanwhile, the auxiliaries are the powers of the soul, and the directed multitude are the many desires which together provide the impulses of the healthy organism.

There are three important considerations to be taken into account in such systems. Firstly, the task before the philosopher king is to act for the good of those who he (or she) rules – to act for one’s own good disqualifies the would-be king from office. Secondly, wisdom is the virtue to be cultivated by the philosopher-king; a state may have many wise men and women within it, but unless they exercise the governing power, the state itself cannot be considered wise. Thirdly, a necessary part of ruling well in such a hierarchy is to delegate power to those below as far as their own wisdom permits. We might note that in the dialogue called the Laws, the main speaker points out that a good constitution is always a mixture of monarchical and democratic power, and that moving to an extreme of either form of power leads to problems.

It is because philosophers are identified as those who cultivate wisdom that Plato claims that “until rulers become philosophers or philosophers become rulers the misery of the human race will continue.” Because he understands each human being as analogous to a state, he is also saying here that until each one of us has an interior ruler who directs the life philosophically, each of us will live a life liable to misery of varying degrees.


The Dialogues of Plato

Plato wrote 35 dialogues (according to Diogenes Laertius), although the authenticity of a small number of these has been doubted by scholars. Aside from a few letters (some of which have also been subject to scholarly debate as regards their reliability), these dialogues alone represent all of the writings he gave to the world. Yet such is their profundity and power that, even after two and a half thousand years, they still draw all kinds of people into the puzzles they set before their readers.

There are a number of approaches to these dialogues which divide modern scholars. Some perceive each dialogue to stand on its own, and assert that to interpret one in the light of what is said in another is invalid. Others see the dialogues as a progression through the development of Plato’s thought, recognising that he sometimes changes his mind as to the truth of things from his earliest to his latest dialogues. Others, in line with the philosophers of the ancient world, see them as a single coherent and stable philosophy, but each with a different aspect of truth brought to the foreground. Amongst modern experts there is a theory that the dialogues fall into three broad categories – early, middle and late – more or less dividing into an early period in which Plato is exploring the examinations of his teacher Socrates with little metaphysical theory intruding; a late period during which Plato laid out his own theories in a well-developed theoretical form; and a middle period, during which he shifted between these two positions. But these are at best speculations, and there is even a real possibility that Plato went back to his earliest works and revised them as ideas were explored and unfolded in his Academy. Barring occasional allusions to previous dialogues within the works themselves, there is no solid evidence of a chronology of the dialogues. Whatever the truth of these speculations, some of the most insightful philosophers of the ancient world made their best progress by treating the complete range of the dialogues as one whole.

Some of the most important dialogues are:

The Timaeus, which is not only the most comprehensive survey of Plato’s cosmology, but also a treasure-house of number lore.

The Republic, in which Plato sets about exploring justice and the state of the person who acts justly, along with the contrasting state of those who act unjustly. The entire dialogue rests on the concept that the internal constitution of the soul is analogous to the constitution of a city-state.

The Phaedo, which is set in the prison cell of the condemned Socrates, explores the nature of the soul and its relation to the body. Socrates guides his closest companions towards a liberation from the fear of death.

The Phaedrus, a dialogue between Illisus, Socrates and Phaedrus set by the river where they discuss the part that Eros, beauty and love play in the journey of the soul. Here we see Socrates at his most inspired.

The Symposium, which picks up again the theme of beauty and love as Socrates explains the philosophy of the mysterious Diotima and her “ladder of love.”

The First Alcibiades, which takes the exhortation said to be displayed at the entrance to the sanctuary of the Delphic Oracle – “know thyself” – and shows how all good philosophy begins with this instruction. In the Platonic schools of late antiquity (third to sixth century CE), this was the dialogue which new students were encouraged to read first.

The Parmenides, the last of the Platonic schools’ cycle of dialogues to be studied. Named after one of the foremost of Plato’s predecessors, it imagines a young Socrates starting out along the path of philosophy and being questioned by the very old Parmenides of Elea. The final third of the dialogue is a display of the deepest enquires into the relation of the First Principle to the different orders of reality.


Socratic Questioning

A large part of Plato’s written work consists in a series of dialogues in which Socrates questions various characters in order to explore truth and expose errors. There are exceptions to this pattern: in some dialogues, philosophers other than Socrates take the main role of guiding the process. For example, Timaeus, said to be a Pythagorean, takes centre stage in the dialogue named after him, and in others philosophers from the Eleatic school (centred in Southern Italy) do so. The Parmenides is one of these, and uniquely it has Socrates (when a young man) as the one being questioned.

Why does Plato use this format? Firstly, it allows Plato to present philosophy as a living drama, rather than a dry didactic process. Secondly, it enables Plato himself to step back and give his readers the space to consider the concepts being put forward for themselves, and to avoid the trap of thinking that something must be right simply “because Plato says so.” But most of all, it reflects one of Plato’s most fundamental teachings: that every human being is a soul which by its very nature has an inborn counterpart to the great eternal ideas which form and shape the manifested universe. The great Neoplatonist philosopher Plotinus wrote, “For the soul is many things, and all things, both the things above and the things below down to the limits of life, and we are each one of us an intelligible universe…” Every time we discover a new truth in our exploration of the world drawing it into our conscious understanding, we are demonstrating the profound reality of this connection between the soul and the ideas that make up the eternal world. Thomas Taylor writes of our common experience of coming across a long looked-for truth; “the delight, too, which attends our discovery of truth sufficiently proves that this discovery is nothing more than a recognition of something most eminently allied to our nature…for the perception of a thing perfectly unknown and unconnected with our nature would produce terror instead of delight; and things are pleasing only in proportion as they possess something known and domestic to the natures by which they are known.”

For Plato, the path of philosophy is the rediscovery of those ideas buried deep within the soul, for although they all reside within each human being, they are largely obscured by our own forgetfulness. The key principle of Platonic education is that “all learning is reminiscence” – or, in the words of Plutarch “education is not the filling of a vessel, but the lighting of a fire;” the true teacher is not supplying the pupil with ideas, but rather finding ways to prompt the recall of ideas already within the soul. Of course in our ordinary life we do have to learn facts – there is no soul knowledge that London is the capital of England, for instance – but all the ideas (or “forms”) which enable us to make wise judgments and to understand the immaterial structure of reality are there to be drawn out of the soul.

Plato uses Socrates as the model philosopher engaged in helping all kinds of people bring to light their inherent ideas. His great art is that of questioning, and questioning in a way which encourages his companions to look within themselves, rather than relying on other people’s opinions. Indeed, Socrates claims in the Theaetetus not to have knowledge himself but to be a kind of philosophical midwife. A midwife, he says, does not create the baby she is to deliver, but is there only to help the mother bring the baby into the light: just so with him, he does not insert knowledge into whomever he is questioning, but, so long as that person is willing to undergo his examination, he will help bring his or her buried truths out into the open.

The various episodes of Socratic questioning can be thought to each belong to one of three broad categories, all determined by the condition of the person he is dealing with:

The worst (and most dangerous) condition is that of “double ignorance” – when someone does not know some important element of truth but wrongly imagines that he does. An example of this is to be found at the beginning the Republic, where a man called Thrasymachus thinks he knows what justice is and confidently says that it is “whatever is advantageous to the powerful man” – or, to use a modern expression, “might is right.” Convinced that he already knows the truth, the doubly ignorant person will not be inclined to search for knowledge – so what Socrates must do with his initial questions is expose the supposed knowledge for what it is: an error. The reaction to this exposure differs from person to person – some become angry, others more docile – and the drama of the angry confrontation sometimes leads those who are reading Plato’s dialogue to think that this is the principal effect and main aim of Socratic questioning. But this is not the case, and Socrates himself says he is not going through this process out of a love of argument and contention, but rather because he himself is searching for truth. To the reader of Plato’s dialogues, it may seem that Socrates is the very measure of wisdom; however, he declares himself that he knows he does not possess “wisdom great or small” when compared with the wisdom of divinity: Socrates is a philosopher in the truest sense of the term, in that it means literally “the lover of wisdom” and not the “possessor of wisdom.”

But there is another condition which Socrates is able to deal with: “simple ignorance”. This is where a person does not know, but at least knows that this is the case. In these cases, Socrates begins by stimulating the ignorant person to the desire of knowledge by pointing out that to arrive at the knowledge of certain truths is not merely desirable but vital if a full and fruitful life is to be lived. As Socrates says at his trial, “the unexamined life is not worth living.” Very often the person in this condition is a young man, and Socrates always deals gently, even lovingly, with such a youth, drawing them into the world of philosophy in order to set them on the path to enlightenment. A good example of this approach is the Theaetetus, where a young mathematician of that name is asked to say what knowledge itself is. He attempts three times to solve the puzzle, each time unsuccessfully, but by the end of the dialogue progress has been made, and the possibility of discovering a valid answer in the future is viewed optimistically.

Finally, a third condition is one where a character or characters are already positively engaged on the philosophic path, and simply require the art of Socratic questioning to clarify and straighten out their thoughts. Perhaps the best example of this is the Phaedo, where Socrates’ close companions gather in his condemned cell to take one last chance to talk to their dear philosophic guide before he is executed by poison. The conversation turns towards the question of the immortality of the soul, and two of Socrates’ followers are taken through a series of arguments to show that even the hidden paths beyond bodily death can be explored philosophically. Here there is no need to remove wrongly held beliefs, nor to stimulate the desire for knowledge. Rather, all that is needed is to put in perspective what is already moving from the hidden depths of the soul into full consciousness.

Perhaps one of the rules that Socrates applies to these episodes is to avoid rushing one’s thoughts. He is confident in the ability of all healthy minds to follow the rational track of truth, and eventually to arrive at an intuitive vision if, and only if, the steps followed are carefully taken without impatient leaps. In the Meno, a character of that name engages Socrates by asking whether virtue can be taught. Socrates says he cannot answer this, because he does not know what virtue is – can, he asks, Meno tell him? Meno is confident that he can, but every attempt to do so fails when Socrates brings his questions to bear upon them. Eventually Meno begins to doubt that anyone can know anything, and Socrates reveals to him his view that “all learning is reminiscence” and demonstrates the theory in action. He does this by taking one of Meno’s young servants, who has no training in geometry but is at least numerate, and asking how he could double the area of a square measuring 2 units by 2. The boy, thinking he knows the answer, quickly replies that he would double the length of the sides. Socrates’ first task is therefore to question the boy in such a way that he realises for himself that answer is wrong, and that implementing it would in fact quadruple the area. Once the “double ignorance” has been removed, Socrates then asks a series of questions; at no point does Socrates supply the answer, but rather breaks the path toward the answer into small steps, each of which the boy can, from his own inherent knowledge, take for himself. The task before Socrates is to lead the boy towards the point at which he can see the relation between the sides of the square and the line which runs diagonally from corner to corner. Eventually, the boy sees that a square formed on that diagonal line would be double the original square. When completed, and when the correct answer is found, Meno agrees that Socrates has not given the boy the answer but rather that he has but drawn it out from him. Socrates is under no illusion that the boy is fully conversant with such geometrical knowledge but says, “Those [true] judgments then are stirred up afresh in the mind of that boy, as fancies are in dreaming. And if he should frequently be questioned of these things, and by many different persons, you may be assured he will at length know them with as much certainty as any man.” This statement encapsulates all of Plato’s works; he consistently asks his readers many questions, in the mouths of many characters, in order for them to become masters (or mistresses) of what we already possess: those beautiful truths buried within us when the Creator formed the soul.

If this Platonic teaching is correct, it throws a new light on what educational authorities of every kind can and cannot do for us; at best, they can assist us on our path towards truth – acting like lights guiding the way – but they cannot give us what are ours by virtue of our soul’s nature, namely the ideas which constitute our connection to the Divine.


Mythos and Logos

Plato’s approach to the path of wisdom – philosophy – embraces many techniques, including reasoned arguments, symbolic numbers, initiatory experiences and story-telling. He understood that human beings are not two dimensional creatures – a machine of actions and reactions with no inner depths to explore – and that mere logic does not inspire us to the kind of effort that is required to break free of our mundane limitations and draw ourselves as close as possible to divinity.

Plato writes beautifully crafted dramas as frames for his philosophic teachings. For example, we find Socrates sitting in a meadow by a stream in order to discuss the nature of the soul’s journey; talking at a party about how love draws every living thing in the universe towards beauty and goodness; or exploring the relation between the soul and the body in a prison cell, just before he drinks the fatal hemlock he has been condemned to take. Each of these dramatic stories underpin the reasoning he offers his readers for consideration – his characters become angry, fall into silences, shed tears, laugh, fall asleep, recount dreams, slip away from or burst into discussions.

With these dramatic dialogues we find a recurring pattern. To begin with, a primary question arises; then, the possible answers to the puzzle are carefully and methodically explored, usually with Socrates questioning those he speaks with; and finally, Socrates produces a myth which puts the previous exploration into an animated form. Here, what has been cut up into definitions, demonstrations and analysis is brought back as one whole; a living story. It is no surprise that some of the most famous elements of Platonic philosophy are drawn from those stories rather than the patient “question and answer” reasoning which take up most of his texts: the tale of the cave of shadows and the escape into the light of the sun, for example, takes but two or three pages out of the Republic’s 300 pages.

So strong is the power of stories to shape our thinking that Socrates worries about the poetic myths of ancient Greece, which portray revered gods and heroes behaving immorally and destructively (with them often quarrelling and attacking one another, for example). These divinities (which can be understood as differing powers or expressions of the One God) he says, should never be portrayed as evil or deceptive. Many problems arise when the young and uneducated take symbolic tales in a literal fashion, so, says Socrates, such myths “must not be admitted into the city; whether they be composed in the way of allegory, or without allegory; for the young person is not able to judge what is allegory and what is not: but whatever opinions he receives at such an age are with difficulty washed away, and are generally immoveable.” In fact, the ability to understand the truth behind the stories of Homer and the other poets mean, Socrates suggests, that only those who have “made the greatest sacrifice” should hear such tales – that sacrifice being the time and effort dedicated to the study of deep truths.

Plato himself, when he crafts his philosophic myths, expects his readers to understand that behind the absurdities of the surface there lie important truths which need to be carefully considered. In one dialogue, the Gorgias, which explores the need for all humans to act justly rather than selfishly, he draws together all that he has said over the 70 or so pages of rational argument into one myth concerning the judgement of our acts, and prefaces it with the remark: “Hear then, as they say, a very beautiful narration; which you indeed will, I think, consider as a fable; but I consider it as a relation of facts . . .” – meaning by “facts” not the literal clothing that the fable offers its hearers, but the deep truths those who both hear and ponder the meaning of the narration may discover.

Sallust, a Platonic philosopher of the fourth century CE, wrote about the use of fables in philosophy in these terms: “Besides, to inform all men of the truth concerning divinity, produces contempt in the unwise, from their incapacity of learning, and negligence in the studious; but concealing truth in fables, prevents the contempt of the former, and compels the latter to philosophize.” He adds, concerning the strange and unlawful deeds in myths, “nor is this unworthy of admiration, that where there is an apparent absurdity, the soul immediately conceiving these discourses to be concealments, may understand that the truth which they contain is to be involved in profound and hidden silence.” In his exploration of myth and its connection to the eternal truths which shape the manifested world, Sallust beautifully said of these stories, “these things never did happen, but always do.” For all the great themes portrayed in the myths of the world are in their telling simply fictions, but as archetypal patterns they repeat over and over again. There never was a ruler mad enough to execute each wife after the bridal night, nor a Scheherazade who avoided that fate; but perhaps each of us cut our experiences into separated parts until we listen to the story which connects each day to the next, and draws many experience into an integrated whole.

It is not chance that leads Socrates, when discussing dialectic (the method of carefully working through reasoned questions and answers), to describe humanity’s God-given gift of reasoning in an old mythological image – that of the tale of Prometheus bringing the fire of heaven down to earth in order to aid humankind, a species of animal which without reasoned forethought would surely perish.

Plato’s blending of mythos and logos – intuitive stories and reasoning – enhances the power of both: for without reasoning our interpretation of myth is at best mere guesswork, while without myth the conclusions of reasoning are no more use to us than what separated piles of bricks, timber, tiles and mortar are to someone in need of a house. Standing on the threshold of death, on his last day on Earth, Socrates says: “And perhaps it is becoming in the most eminent degree, that he who is about to depart thither [into the next life] should consider and mythologise about this departure: I mean, what kind of a thing we should think it to be. For what else can such a one be more properly employed about, till the setting of the sun?”

Perhaps the most famous of Plato’s many stories is that of the Cave, a summary of which will suffice to conclude this brief overview of the Platonic philosophy.


The Cave

In the Republic, the group of philosophers who gather together to discuss the pressing question of justice in human life spend some time pondering the nature of truth. They come to the conclusion that not only all reality but all truth can be traced back to one immense principle, which transcends all; gives all things their existence and intelligibility, much as the sun transcends all things on earth; and ultimately has produced everything and makes all visible.

Socrates, who had spent some time discussing how a human being can approach truth and reality with different powers of knowing – ranging from the outermost senses to the innermost intelligence – and that each of these powers addresses different levels of truth from the most superficial to the deepest and most hidden workings of reality, considers the majority of humankind to be trapped in the illusion that only the outer layers of reality are substantial and real. He understands that behind every material object is an immaterial idea, and that all the true ideas which give rise to the material world are linked to that mysterious and transcendent First Principle. This Principle is the beginning of all things, whether material or immaterial, and is reverenced under different names by different cultures. To explain this, Plato tells his famous story of the Cave with these words:

Consider now, bearing these things in mind, that most people are like a group of people who have lived all their lives sitting on a bench in a deep cave; and further, they have chains both on their legs and necks, so as to remain there, and only able to look in front of them towards the end wall of the cave, since the chains prevent them turning their heads round. Now behind them is a brightly burning fire and between that fire and the fettered people is a wall – the kind of a wall upon which conjurors and puppeteers perform their tricks. Just behind this wall is a path along which others are carrying all kinds of objects above their heads – statues of animals, and differing shapes – so that the light from the fire playing on these objects casts shadows of them upon the far wall, producing a continuous display of moving wonders for the prisoners. Every now and then the people carrying the objects speak and the sounds echo back from the wall of shadows, giving the impression that the shadows themselves are the source of the sounds.

Figure 3.1: Plato’s Allegory of the Cave.

I suppose that these poor men would think that those insubstantial shadows were the whole of truth and reality, and that they would study and name them, and many would become expert in judging the procession playing before their eyes. Some would be able, perhaps, to predict what shadow was about to appear or how one shadow was related to another; and the best might well be awarded honours for their clever judgements.

Now then, what would happen if someone should free one of the prisoners and force him to turn around towards the fire and procession of objects? I think the first thing that would happen is that he would feel pain as the light from the fire dazzled his eyes which until that point had only seen the dim shadows on the wall, and he might want to turn back to his accustomed place on the bench. But perhaps his liberator would whisper in his ear that he was now seeing something closer to true reality than before, and then would force him to make his way up the long and difficult slope which led out of the cave.

If his eyes had been dazzled by the light of the fire, how would he react to the light of day in the world of unimagined brightness above the cave? His discomfort would be extreme, and he would be almost blinded by the outpouring of light from the Sun. He would have to take some time to get used to the new intensity of light: first he would look at shadows and reflections in water, and only after a while be able to look upon the objects of the upper world seeing things as they really are – perhaps realising that the shadows cast upon the wall deep down in the cave were made by statues which in turn were representations of what he was now seeing.

But this would not be the end of his journey into truth: at night the stars and the other heavenly bodies would appear, and in their gentler light he would turn his face upwards and discover the beauty of the world beyond. And, then as dawn broke, he would glimpse the great day-star, rising in the east and turning the whole world visible, beautiful and full of life. Now he would realise that it was the sun which not only brought about all the wonders of the upper world, but that it was also responsible in a certain indirect way, for all that existed in the cave below – for those shadows which until recently he had considered to be the whole of reality, he now realises were the fleeting and insubstantial images of artificial objects carried along beside the fire of the cave, and that those statues were themselves copies of things brought to life by the power of the sun in the world above it. The former prisoner understood that between the all-powerful sun and the cave wall were a series of causes that he could trace, and that without the sun even the least of the shadows could not have flickered into existence.

When his thoughts turned back to the previous life chained on those benches deep in the cave, and his fellow prisoners, what would be his view of them and the honours that they prized so much in their dark world? He would likely say to himself that he would rather work as the lowest slave of some landless man in the light-filled world, rather than be trapped back on those benches with the dreamy play of shadows before his eyes. For surely now he would consider himself in a happy state, surpassing all the transient joys of the honours given to those who best judged the shadows.

But being a good person, he might take pity on his former companions, and make his way down again into the cave to speak to them and encourage them to make the same journey as he himself had done. But, of course, there are two ways of blinding the eye: one is to move from darkness to light (as he had previously experienced), and the other to move from light to darkness. Should the former prisoner descend, it is likely that he would stumble and hardly be able to make out the shadows which seemed so clear to those still in chains; the prisoners would say that he had ruined his eyes by going outside, and, if he persisted in talking all that nonsense about the upper world, they would say that if they could only lay hands upon him, they would kill him. This, for Plato, represents the distinctively human predicament of being a creature that can perceive two levels of reality; one immaterial and full of the light we call Truth, the other material and obscured by the constant shape-shifting of matter as it grows and decays. Just as the eye struggles adjust to the different levels of light in a cave and in the sunlit world, so the mind struggles to adjust to the changes in perceptions when it moves in either direction between the two forms of reality.

This is effectively the end of the story told by Socrates, but a little while later he does state that if the republic he and his companions were dreaming up were able to educate and lead its best citizens to that state in which the upper levels of reality were seen – and perhaps able to glimpse even the great first principle which transcends that world – they would require that happy contemplator of the highest realities to descend back down into the ordinary life, as a guide for those who were unaware of everything that lay behind the manifestation of shadows. As Socrates says, “it is not the design of the creator of this state to make just one section of the population happy, but to ensure the happiness of the whole.” In other words, as far as any human is able to escape the chains that hold him or her to the world of shadowy material reality and the illusion that that is all there is to our lives, so they have a duty to share the insights gained by looking beyond the ordinary world of material existence.

This is, of course, the repeating story of humankind: throughout history, those who have glimpsed the sunlit world and its beauties try to convey to their fellow cave-dwellers the possibilities and joys that could be theirs if they break the chains of their own limited understanding of themselves and the world which surrounds them. For many, those chains are comfortable and reassuring; indeed, for some, they are chains which have granted them positions of power and wealth, which those individuals are reluctant to risk losing. No wonder that those we call prophets, sages, philosophers or seers are often attacked and even killed for their attempts to loosen the chains and overturn the benches.

Plato’s allegory conveys the stark reality: we can choose either to reside in the depths of the cave, or dazzle ourselves with the vision of the sun. In reality, the movement from the one to the other is full of intermediate steps; at each step we must look upwards from our present understanding towards an ever brighter light, which beckons us towards the final vision. This book, in its own way, is one of those steps. It invites the reader to consider the nature of things more deeply; to seek what might be hidden behind accepted conventions and familiar appearances.


Stretching towards divinity

Why does Plato use the viewing of the sun as an analogy for the highest state the former prisoner reaches in the story of the cave? One reason is to be found in the Republic a few pages before Socrates tells that story: there one of his companions presses him to say what the Good is but Socrates replies that he cannot say, and that even if he could, those listening would not be able to understand what he would say. Plato uses the term “the Good” of “the Good Itself” to mean God, and we should understand that what Socrates is saying is that he cannot really speak about God as the source of all in any accurate way.

What he then does is offer his listeners an analogy: in the same way that the sun is not only the cause of all living things on Earth and the means by which we see those things but is itself above the Earth, so the Good is the source of all invisible and intelligible reality (ideas) and the light that shines from the Good (truth) is the means by which our minds can perceive those ideas, but that it itself above those ideas. And because, for Plato, ideas are the primary causes of material things, the philosophers of the Platonic tradition understand that the Good is the cause of all things, both immaterial and material, but that it transcends all.

The Good then is beyond knowing and beyond existence, but the cause of both knowing and existence. The whole passage in the Republic is only two or three pages long, and the discussion between the philosophers moves on to other things – including the story of the cave – so that the superficial reader might easily miss the profound truth which Plato has touched upon. But in this little exchange Plato has planted a seed that has inspired the deepest thinkers of the West, and which can also be found in the teachings of the East. We can see its influence in The Canticle of the Birds written by the Persian Sufi poet and philosopher Farīd ud-Dīn ‘Aṭṭār (see chapter 10), and in the some of the greatest works of Platonists in the fifth and sixth centuries CE, notably Damascius’ Doubts and Solutions concerning the First Principle and Proclus’ Commentary on the Parmenides where the reader is taken through a series of steps where every possible thinkable attribute is denied of God.

The essential message here is that every time we affirm that God has a particular quality which belongs to the world of ideas or the world of material things we are actually falling away from the truth of God – reducing to the conceivable that which is truly inconceivable. Damascius (in his Doubts and Solutions) says that what lies beyond our conceptions, “is to be honoured in the most perfect silence, and prior to this, by the most perfect ignorance” – to which the translator adds by way of explanation of this mystical ignorance, “as that which is below all knowledge is an ignorance worse than knowledge, so the silence in which our ascent to the ineffable terminates is preceded by an ignorance superior to all knowledge. Let it however, be carefully remembered, that such an ignorance is only to be obtained after the most scientific and intellectual activities.”

In medieval Christianity the inadequacy of thought and language to approach the divine was known as negative theology, or the via negativa – the way of negation. We can hear the same approach to God in the famous Hindu Upanishad response to the search for God, “Neti, neti” – not this, not that. The great Taoist, Chwang Tsze, too, tries to explain the first principle, Tao, with the statement, “Tao is the Ultimate to which all things conduct us. No speech or silence suffices to convey the notion of It.” Rumi, too, gives expression to this mystery:

Study me as much as you like, you will not know me,
for I differ in a hundred way from what you see me to be….
Put yourself behind my eyes and see me as I see myself,
for I have chosen to dwell in a place you cannot see.


Platonic Theology

A particular difficulty that poses a problem for those brought up in monotheistic religions is that of the Platonic tradition’s understanding of the divine. One response to Plato’s inclusion of references to many gods in his dialogues (and, of course, to other Platonist texts in the subsequent development of the tradition) is to say that the ‘many gods’ are simply a way of speaking to the uneducated and superstitious of his era. Or that it is merely a cultural hang-over from earlier polytheistic times. Perhaps a deeper explanation will allow the initial rejection of such Platonic theology to be viewed in a more sympathetic light – even to the extent that we might see it as not so different to orthodox monotheism of later ages.

Above all, as we can see from the first affirmation of the summary of Plato’s philosophy on page 1, the tradition holds that there is a first principle or God, which is known as the One or the Good. We can also see from the previous section on Plato’s negative theology that this principle is held in the highest regard, and is understood to be beyond speech and even ordinary thought. From this point of view we can say that Plato is a monotheist.

But if we accept this single First Cause, we must ask ourselves what comes next? Platonic philosophy identifies a metaphysical rule which says that when something acts as a true cause and from its own self, it first produces effects most like itself, and only subsequently things which are less like itself. Writers used the analogy of a fire: the primary quality of a fire is that is hot, and the first effect of a fire is to make things closest to it similarly hot; things more distant are cooler, and the further one moves from the fire, so the similarity diminishes.

If the First Cause begins unfolding its nature, they suggested, then it must first produce things most like itself. What would they call those first productions? They decided that if the First Cause was God, then its first productions should be called gods – unities which conveyed the nature of God outwards to things second, third and subsequent productions. But this is a terminology which is not accepted by monotheists, who call things closest to God angels. But it does look like the activity of Platonic gods and orthodox monotheist angels are, more or less, the same and that what seems to be an insurmountable difference is really a question of terminology. Both function as emanations from an ineffable and unknown God, making manifest the will and goodness of that God.

But what kind of response is appropriate from a human being to these gods or angels? Perhaps this, too, is not so different between the two religious cultures: both honour and obey these beings which are closest to God – after all the beginning of Muhammad’s life as a prophet is signalled by his obedience to an angel (“read!”), because he understood it to be a messenger of God. In other words he paid it due honour because of its nature. Now it is possible for a monotheist to argue that honour is due to these first productions of God, but not worship – and that this, and not the nature of the god or angel is the difference between the two religious cultures. But worship actually means the correct honouring of something: the English word worship derives from its old root weord – (glory, honour, renowned) and scipe (condition): so to worship is to acknowledge the condition in which honour should be offered.

What is presented as a gulf between monotheistic and pagan responses to God, in this light, becomes more and more a question of a misunderstanding of terms rather than anything of substance.

What obscures this philosophical truth is the intrusion of old myths where the gods of various pagan cultures are seen to be at odds with one another and, moreover, indulging is immoral and unjust behaviour. Angels are never portrayed as fighting one another, or giving opposing messages to humankind, or acting against goodness – so that this seems to remove them from being understood as parallels to the multiplicity of gods of various ancient civilizations. But the myths were stories which conveyed truths is a disguised and symbolic manner, and certainly not meant to be taken literally. Socrates, in Plato’s Republic (books 2 and 3), worries that the young and uneducated will misunderstand myth, not being able to distinguish between literal truth and symbolic presentations of truth. He says,

“For though these things [mythic actions and events] were true, yet I should not imagine they ought to be so plainly told to the unwise and the young, but ought much rather to be concealed… for the young person is not able to judge what is allegory and what is not: but whatever opinions he receives at such an age are with difficulty washed away, and are generally immoveable.”

Leaving aside the literal interpretation of myths and considering them as attempts to say something positive about the mysterious God who is most accurately approached through negation or via negativa, we might say that the properties associated with particular Greek gods can in fact be taken as attributes of the One God. For example, while the Qur’anic verse 24:35 affirms that “God is the light of the heavens and the earth, the ancient Greeks conceived the light of God in relation to the light-bringing god Apollo. Or, where we understand God as bringing wisdom to things in creation (Qur’an 2:269: He [God] gives the Wisdom to whomsoever He will”), the ancient Greeks addressed Athena, the goddess of wisdom; furthermore, where we want to positively affirm the creative characteristic of God (Qur’an 7 :54: “Indeed your Lord is Allah Who created the heavens and the earth”), the ancient Greeks addressed Zeus as Creator and Father.

Our understanding of the divine can be primarily as an absolute One beyond all distinctions and conditions and at the same time, secondarily as an overflowing of all forms of pure goodness. How we go about conceptualising the relation of particular characteristics differs from religion to religion, and from philosophy to philosophy: Porphyry, a Platonist of the third century CE wrote that the most appropriate honour paid to the First is silence. When we speak we are necessarily falling away from the true nature of that One, and hence the variety of approaches and, it seems, the all too human tendencies of argument and warfare.

Chapter 13

An Interview with Youssef Seddik

“The first key to wisdom is constant and frequent questioning …for by doubting we are led to question and by questioning we arrive at the truth.” – Peter Abelard

After facing controversy over his books, Youssef Seddik has spent over half a century researching and contemplating what it means to “read” the Qur’anic text. He has sought to revive the intellectual spirit of the “Arab Age of Enlightenment” – the time of revelation and prophecy – in the modern world by re-interpreting the Holy Book independently of traditional authorities. Seddik interprets the Qur’anic command “read” as an invitation for each person to encounter the text as if it was revealed today; to interpret its message in light of the cultural and historical context; and to go about all of this without excluding reason from faith. He has expressed disappointment with how this understanding of “reading” as an active process is no longer acknowledged in the Arab world, and how this has led his research on Greek culture and the anthropology of Islam to be largely neglected in this environment. He has, however, acquired much respect in France as a forerunner of an intellectual movement not unlike the religious reform movement led by Martin Luther in the 16th Century. This movement was based on the abolition of austere religious mediation and the encouragement of the believer to undertake his or her own personal reception of the Divine message.

One of the few Arabs to have mastered the ancient Greek language, Youssef Seddik has translated Plato’s Republic and Parmenides’ epic poem directly into Arabic. He is unique in decoding the central mechanisms of European culture by referring to its most ancient foundational texts – the two epics of Homer, The Iliad and The Odyssey – and to Greek mythology, in order to show, as he says, the danger of myth in building cultural mentalities and defining the dominant discourse among nations.


The Interview

Q1: What gave you the idea to write your important and bold book “نحن لم نقرأ القرآن بعد” (“We have not read the Qur’an yet”) which was published in French under title Nous n’avons jamais Lu Le Coran?

YS: I wanted to think of a text that could be philosophised; a subject that I could work on in my studies. I thought about al-Kindī, al-Fārābī, Ibn Sīna, Ibn Rushd and others, and I was aware that they had a strong link with Western philosophy; we cannot talk about al-Fārābī and Ibn Rushd without referring to Plato and Aristotle. I tried to think of a text which can be philosophized and has no relationship with Western philosophy.

I thought about the Qur’an and asked myself: why there is a philosopher like Emmanuel Levinas who developed the Torah and turned it into a philosophical text? Or, in Christianity, the great philosopher Pierre Teilhard de Chardin who developed the Evangelical text into a strong philosophical work which was taught in secular philosophical colleges and not in religious faculties?

I was sure that this approach when applied to the Qur’an would be very brave; while pursuing my studies in Greek language and Greek philosophy, I discovered that there are at least 800 words or terms in the Qur’an that came directly from the Greek dictionary. I knew that when the Qur’anic miracle features other languages, it carries with it the ideas and cultures of these languages. I continued my studies, and after almost twelve years I submitted the doctoral thesis from which I developed my most important book, “We have not read the Qur’an yet”.

When I studied well-known philosophical exegeses of the Qur’an, I found there to be three horizons or directions alluded to in the text; the southern horizon of Abyssinia and the Ashab al-Fīl; the western horizon, which was Egypt; and the eastern horizon, which was Babylon and surrounding areas. But the north horizon, which was Greece, is largely neglected, despite the fact that Greek ideas are abound in the Qur’anic marvels. For example, the word “حاور” (pronounced ḥaawir, meaning “dialogue”) did not exist in pre-Islamic poetry, but appears in the Qur’an in Sūrat al-Kahf:

وكان له ثمر فقال لصاحبه وهو يحاوره أنا أكثر منك مالاً وأعز نفراً
“And he had [abundant] fruit and said unto his companion as he conversed [engaged in dialogue] with him” (al-Kahf: 34)


وقال له صاحبُهُ وهو يحاوره أكفرت بالذي خلقك من تراب ثم نطفة ثم سواك رجلا
His companion said to him as he conversed [engaged in dialogue] with him, “Do you disbelieve in the one who created you from dust, then from a drop, then fashioned you as a man?” (al-Kahf: 37)

The word “dialogue” therefore indicates that the Qur’an touches on Greek philosophy, invoking the concept of dialogue from the time of Plato.


Q2: What do you mean by “We have not read the Qur’an yet”

YS: My answer to this question emerged a long time ago. I wondered: we recite and chant the Qur’an, but do we read it? I mentioned in my book that we recite and chant the Qur’an, but we have forgotten the act of reading. We have completely forgotten it.

Reading is a very dangerous act, because it means that we enter into a direct interaction with the text, where there are only two parties present; the first is myself, the reader, and the second is God. He is the one who revealed it. His presence is constant; I try to reach the understanding which He wanted, but I will never reach it through simply reciting and chanting. Every time I approach it this way, I cannot reach Him.

In order to read a letter sent to you by your brother, father, or friend, you must be able to understand its words as much as he [the author] is able to formulate them. God Almighty is able to formulate words, and you the reader must be able to understand them in the same manner and power. This is what we have forgotten, and therefore we have become afraid of the Qur’anic text; whenever a person proposes an interpretation that is contrary to what is known, he will find an unsurmountable obstacle. This obstacle is built on an enormous dogmatism which dictates what every potential reader should not read, and that he or she should be convinced that everything has already been read without him and before him, be it within their culture or outside of it, in the past or in the future. Therefore, we are now in the process of a long-lost reading of the Qur’an. The question is: how can we encourage a person be a reader of the Qur’an, and not just a reciter or repeater?

Firstly, we can say that there is something absent from the classical formal schools such as al-Azhar, Zaytuna, al-Qayrawan and others. This is that they do not acknowledge that the Arabic language is the last in a series that began with Akkadian, Aramaic, Syriac and Phoenician; Hebrew and Arabic came after that. They do not recognise this sequence and this linguistic family, which is highly important in order to understand the Qur’an and until now has not been taught; what is taught are the origins and meanings of the Qur’an [and] sharia provisions and expressions, but we do not know how this or that word originally was and where it came from; how it was received during the time of the Prophet Muhammad; or how it was heard by a shepherd or a farmer in that time. What did it mean to them? We now have some words in known languages ​​from two centuries that have changed in their meaning. So, how could a word heard in Mecca or Medina at the time of revelation not have changed since then?

Secondly, we must acknowledge that the Qur’an was not revealed to the people of Mecca and Medina only, but rather to all people. So, what were the general surroundings, that is, of Syria, Iraq, Egypt, Greece, etcetera? What was the impact of these surroundings not only on history, but also on language? For example, when the Qur’an says, “قالت اليهود عزير ابن الله” (at-Tawbah: 30), the question is, who is Uzair? Every interpreter says something different. According to Ibn Kathir, the Prophet did not know whether Uzair was a king or a prophet. But is that possible? I am sure that this hadith is hundred percent false

When we study, when we work hard to reach the knowledge, we find out that Uzair in the Hebrew language is Osiris; one of the gods of the ancient Egyptian civilization. The Jews of Yathrib (Medina) inherited some of this civilization, and we know they had a culture of polytheism because they worshiped the calf and other things. They lacked a culture of their own, so when they settled in Yathrib these remnants of ancient Egyptian civillisation became myths and legends to them.

When we review what the early and even contemporary commentators said about the name “Uzair,” we do not find a correct answer because they, the commentators, do not research or study these civilizations knowing that the Qur’an has referred to them. There is another important reason explaining the lack of reading and focusing only on recitation; this is that, from the very beginning of the interpretation process, the exegetes were under the pressure and control of the caliph. It was the caliph who determined who was allowed to be an interpreter, who was forbidden from writing, and whose books should be burnt.

This means that the authoritative books that have reached us over the past centuries have passed through the censorship of the caliphs and sultans; we therefore cannot consider them to be free interpretations. It is important to remember that Islam has neither a church nor monasticism, and that every person should be able to give his or her opinion of a verse regardless of their position. Even if it does not correspond with reality, this opinion is either useful and should be considered, or will perish by itself if it is untrue.

In my opinion, these are the most significant factors which made us stop reading and instead simply recite and chant the Qur’an, and also account for the false hadiths.


Q3: Do Muslims need to review the Prophetic biography and hadiths?

YS: It is necessary because it was written two centuries after the events which were spoken about took place. Whether the hadith or the Sunnah, this cannot be accepted by any rational human being. Is it rational that, in any sermon in any mosque, the name Abū Hurairah is now mentioned more than the name of the Prophet Muhammad, or any name of the rightly guided caliphs? Abū Hurairah is the source of 62% of the hadiths of Bukhārį and 68% of the hadiths of Muslim. Abū Hurairah used to fabricate hadiths at the command of Mu’awiyah and those who succeeded him, and he did not become Muslim until two or three years before the death of the Prophet. How could he have possibly collected this tremendous number of hadiths?

And how can we explain the uncanniness of the fact that the Umayyad period lasted ninety years and yet within that time they did not produce a single book, neither in philosophy, nor in knowledge, nor in science, not even in poetry, even while there was Jarīr and al-Farazdaq. No other text but the Qur’an was produced during this time. This was not done out of a respect; rather, they wanted to make it a dormant text for reciting only, because they believed that freezing the Qur’an was the most suitable revenge for what the Prophet Muhammad had done historically for them. This was the influential leader and human being who had robbed them of their lives and commerce in the Battle of Badr.

The Umayyads banned any written text until they established their power, and therefore reading was forbidden except for the sake of recitation only. Recitation is necessary in rituals such as prayer, but reading is obligatory. And I am not exaggerating when I say that reading was neglected for fourteen centuries.

With respect to Umayyad politics and administration, it was another matter entirely. For example, the Caliph ‘Abd al-Malik ibn Marwān had done tremendous work minting money, Arabizing the administration, and altering the Arabic alphabet from its Greek arrangement to the one used now. But he did not do anything intellectually, even though he had writers such as the wazir Yahya al-Dimashqī, one of the builders of the Christian Church. We should not forget that Yahya al-Dimashqī used to leave his work in the Caliphate Palace and go to defend Christianity and the Trinity with all freedom and democracy in the streets of Damascus.


Q4: You mentioned in your book that there are about 800 words or terms in the Qur’an that came directly from the Greek dictionary, but there is a verse in the Qur’an that says: “انا أنزلناه قرآنا عربياً لعلكم تعقلون” (“Truly We sent it down as an Arabic Qur’an, that haply you may understand”) (Yūsuf: 2). Can you explain this paradox?

YS: The Arabic language in the pre-Islamic era was very similar to the local African languages ​​such as Amharic, Tigrinya, etcetera. These are limited languages, like dialects. They dealt with concepts such as proximity, distance, longing, love and chivalry, and also emptiness and absence, however they did not go beyond the horizons of literal meaning and into metaphysics. But this region, that is, the Arabian Peninsula, was at the same time culturally open to others, influenced by them and influencing them, and the Arabs knew the entire region. Tribes like Mudar, Rabi‘a and Bakr used to roam these neighbouring areas, settled in and gave them their names, including “Diyarbakir” which is a large city in Turkey now, and next to it are two small cities, “Diyar Mudar” and “Diyar Rabi‘a”, which exist to this day. We have to understand that these distances have produced civilizations, monuments, traditions and poems and openness to the other, especially to the Greeks, who entered the Arab space as a result of this fruitful interaction that was before Islam, such as trade and intermarriage, and peace at one time and war at another time. The Arab space had been open to others, being a vast physical and cultural space; it is wrong to reduce this space to what is today called the Arabian Peninsula. In my opinion, the Qur’an drew extensively on these other linguistic sources, using many terms from the foreign languages ​​that circulated within the wider environment during this time. The Qur’an has inserted about 800 words or terms from the Greek language into the text, and sometimes it has inserted them in their original Greek forms without any change at all. One example is the word “سيماهم” (their signs) in “سيماهم في وجوههم من أثر السجود” (“Their mark upon their faces is from the effect of prostration”) (al-Fatḥ: 29); this word is identical to the word sēma in the Greek language and means “sign”, related to the Greek term sēmantikos, meaning the science of signs and semiotics.

Another example is the word “زخرف ” (pronounced zukhruf, meaning “decoration”), derived from the Greek zographios, which is made up of two words. The first is “zoo”, meaning “life”, “living” or “animal”, from which comes the word “zoo” used today. Likewise, in the Arabic language the word for animal can also mean “life”, as mentioned in the verse:

“وما هذه الحياة الدنيا إلا لهو ولعب وأن الدار الآخرة لهي الحيوان لو كانوا يعلمون”
“And the life of this world is naught but diversion and play. And surely the Abode of the Hereafter is life indeed, if but they knew” (al-‘Ankabūt: 64)

The second word which makes up “زخرف” is graphos, meaning writing or drawing. Thus, the literal meaning of “زخرف” is “life in writing” or “who draws the living.” This word is mentioned five times in the Qur’an where it carries a potent meaning, such as in:

“وكذلك جعلنا لكل نبي عدواً شياطين الأنس والجن يوحي بعضهم الى بعض زخرف القول غروراً لو شاء ربك ما فعلوه فذرهم وما يفترون”
“Thus have We made for every prophet an enemy – satans from among mankind and jinn, who inspire each other with flowery discourse in order to deceive. Had thy Lord willed, they would not have done so.” (al-An‘am: 112)

The word “زخرف” is not simply mentioned, but is embedded into the use of the term and has deeper metaphysical implications. It is not just an instance of an animal or plant which the Arabic language did not have a name for and so referred to it in a foreign language; rather, it is an indication that the word was deliberately used in the Qur’an along with its original meaning concerning revelation, vanity, lies, camouflage, illusion and so on. This is a major detail that the commentators did not address in their commentaries.


Q5: You often repeat a sentence or term, which is that there is a deep Platonism in the Qur’an. Could you explain to us what you mean by this sentence?

YS: Yes, indeed, there is a deep Platonism in the Qur’an, and I presented it modestly. I presented it in my book where I removed certain things that shocked me. For example, we can compare the description of the Day of Resurrection in the Qur’an with the Day of Resurrection as mentioned by Plato in the tenth book of The Republic. This is the story of the hero “Er”. I will mention some passages from this long story that are of interest to us in our research. Er was a brave man and a native of Pamphylia. He was killed in the war, but when the bodies were collected for burial after ten days, his body was the only one which did not rot. So, he was transferred to his home. As they were about to bury him after only two days, he rose from the dead while he was lying on his deathbed, and there he began to share what he had seen in the other world. He told them that when his soul departed from his body, he traveled with a large group until they reached a wonderful place in which there are two adjacent holes in the earth; opposite them, two other holes in the sky; and fair judges sat between them, commanding the righteous individuals after each judgment they issued to head to the right path ascending to the sky, and to hang signs on their chests displaying the verdict which they received. This corresponds to the Qur’anic verse:

فأما من أوتي كتابه بيمينه فيقول هاؤم أقرءُوا كتابيه
“As for one who is given his book in his right hand, he will say, “Here, read my book” (al-Ḥāqqah: 19)

As for the wrongdoers, they are commanded to follow the left path downwards, carrying evidence of their sins on their backs. This also corresponds to the Qur’an as follows:

وأما من أوتي كتابه بشماله فيقول يا ليتني لم أوت كتابيه
And as for one who is given his book in his left hand, he will say, “Would that I had not been given my book (al-Ḥāqqah: 25)

“لقد خسر الذين كذبوا بلقاء الله
حتى إذا جاءتهم الساعة بغتة قالوا يا حسرتنا على ما فرطنا فيها وهم يحملون اوزارهم على ظهورهم ألا ساء ما يزرون
“Those will have lost who deny the meeting with Allah, until when the Hour [of resurrection] comes upon them unexpectedly, they will say, “Oh, [how great is] our regret over what we neglected concerning it [i.e., the Hour],” while they bear their burdens [i.e., sins] on their backs. Unquestionably, evil is that which they bear” (al-‘An‘am: 31)

When “Er” got closer, the judges told him that he should carry the news of the other world to the people, and that they should listen now and know what will happen to them in that place. He saw the souls who were judged leaving the place through a hole leading to the sky and another hole leading to the earth. As for the other two holes, souls ascending from the earth began to pass through them, exhausted and burdened by traveling, and other souls descending from the sky clean and pure. This also corresponds to the Qu’rān:

“وجوه يومئذ مسفرة ضاحكة مستبشرة ووجوه يومئذ عليها غبره ترهقها قتره أولئك هم الكفرة الفجرة”
(“Faces that Day shall be shining, radiant, laughing, joyous. And faces that Day shall be covered with dust, over-spread with darkness. Those, they are the disbelievers, the profligates”) (‘Abasa: 38-42).

At that time [in the story of Er], some of the tough strong men who were standing near the door were arresting some of them, they tied their hands, feet and necks with chains, and began to throw them to the ground and beat them with whips, and tell them they will go to Tartarus Fire; “Hell”: Once again, this corresponds to the Qur’an…

يا أيها الناس آمنوا قو أنفسكم وأهليكم ناراً وقودها الناس والحجارة عليها ملائكة غلاظ شداد لا يعصون الله ما أمرهم ويفعلون ما يؤمرون “
(“O you who believe! Shield yourselves and your families from a Fire whose fuel is men and stones, over which are angels, and who do what they are commanded”) (al-Taḥrīm: 6)

Finally, “Er” sees that he saw the spindle of necessity in which all the spheres revolve, and which consists of eight scales that overlap each other, connected to one scale wrapping around a leg descending from the middle of the eighth scale, alluded to in the Qur’anic verse:

“والملك على أرجائها ويحمل عرش ربك فوقهم يومئذ ثمانية”
“And the angels shall be at its sides; that Day eight shall carry the Throne of thy Lord above them” (al-Ḥāqqah: 17)

In Plato’s story, Er describes how, on the surface of all scales, there is a horn which emitted a single sound. This is also alluded to in the verse:

“فإذا نفخ في الصور نفخة واحدة”
“Then when a single blast is blown in the trumpet” (al-Ḥāqqah: 13)

We see here the use of the same word for trumpet, and in both cases the trumpet is blown just once.


Q6: Is it possible to tell us about Dhul-Qarnayn?

Yes, who is Dhul-Qarnayn, and how can we interpret commentators from the twentieth century who tell us that this man lived before the Flood and that he was not Alexander, a disciple of Aristotle [which would make him a pagan]? Consider how, in the Qur’an, God glorifies him and says to him:

“يا ذا القرنين إمّا أن تعذب وإمّا أن تتخذ فيهم حسناً”
“Oh, Dhul-Qarnayn, either you torture or take good in them” (al-Kahf: 86)

The classical exegetes say that this is not possible, because this phrase is only said to a prophet or to a messenger. If Dhul-Qarnayn had only been a pagan disciple of Aristotle and an emperor who had nothing to do with a message or revelation, then why would it have been said to him? As I have shown in my book, Dhul-Qarnayn was named through the Greek antiquities that were referred to “the horns of the ram”, as the god Amon called it. I have shown that there was an anthropology of monasticism during the time of Amun, in which it was believed that when the priest hears the wind in the temple in a certain way, he translates it to the visitor, whether he is an ordinary visitor, an emperor, or a candidate for the empire, as it was for Alexander the Great. The temple priest translated it to Alexander and told him that the god Amon had accepted him as his son by giving him the title “the horns of the ram”. It is therefore clear that Dhul-Qarnayn is Alexander the Great.

But the question is: why did God choose him and say, ” Oh, Dhul-Qarnayn, either you torture or take good in them “? This is selective judgment. The reason for this is because I believe that when God declared the very, very important declaration that Muhammad was the last of the prophets and messengers, as in the verse:

“ما كان محمداً أبا أحد من رجالكم ولكن رسول الله وخاتم النبيين وكان الله بكل شيء عليماً”
“Muhammad is not the father of any man among you; rather, he is the Messenger of God and the Seal of the prophets. And God is Knower of all things” (Al-Aḥzāb: 40)

The announcement was clear, but the question remained; how can we choose the leader or the ruler? Here, the Qur’anic revelation or the Qur’anic text has turned to a Platonic question, which is that the only ruler, regardless of his faith, is the philosopher king, as presented in Plato’s Republic. This ruler must have the attributes of rational and wise person, and this is evident in the dialogue between Dhul-Qarnayn and God, the revealer. In other words, you, O Dhul-Qarnayn, have the ruling, and we the divinity, and with Muhammad we declared that he is the last of the prophets in the transcendental class. When we announce this declaration, we have to think about who rules the people regardless of the divine selection. Here, the Qur’an turns to a clear Platonic question concerning the ruler of the “Virtuous City” as the one who can apply his wisdom and be a strong ruler simultaneously; this is the archetype of the philosopher king. That is why the interlocutor, who is Alexander the Great or Dhul-Qarnayn, is honoured by this name because of what God has chosen politically for him. He defends this, saying:

“قال أما من ظلم فسوف نعذبه وثم يرد الى ربه فيعذبه عذاباً نكراً، وأما من آمن وعمل صالحاً فله جزاء الحسنى وسنقول له من أمرنا يسراً”
“That is, we, Dhul-Qarnayn, will judge through rational observations and we may make mistakes and may contradict what You know from the unseen. And if we have sinned against anyone, we will return him to you after his death, you are God and he will deserve severe torture from you” (al-Kahf: 87-88)

This dialogue is highly significant and definitively indicates that it was inspired by the task of the philosopher ruler, who was adopted by Plato in determining the ruler in the “Virtuous City”.


Q7: Surat al-Kahf consists of several stories, is there a link between them?

YS: The Qur’anic stories in Surat al-Kahf consist of these three following stories:

The first story is the story of the young men and their dog in the cave.

The second story is the story of the righteous servant.

The third story is the story of Alexander, Dhul-Qarnayn.

I believe that there is an interconnectedness and an overlap between these three stories in the sequence. The first one is Platonic, pertaining to the cave (al-Kahf), the experience of living in it and the possibility of leaving it through faith. In this story, the Qur’an suggests that departure from the cave can be achieved through faith only, not by reason; however, then comes the story of the righteous servant. This second story follows on from the first story of the Platonic Cave, and takes place between a believer named Moses who is a prophet who receives revelation and so on, and another individual who only has reason and is only able to draw conclusions through his own reason; he is the righteous servant whom the Islamic legend has transformed into al-Khidr. The third story is Platonic par excellence because on rare occasions the Qur’an shifts to another subject or character and becomes plural. So, when he [Allah] turns to Dhul-Qarnayn and says to him, “We said, O Dhul-Qarnayn”, it addresses him as if he is addressing the elements. It is as if he addressing the element of water:

“و قيل يأرض ابلعي ماءك
“And it was said, “O earth! Swallow your water!” (al-Hūd: 44)

Or the element of fire:

قلنا يا نار كوني برداً وسلاماً على إبراهيم
“We said, “O fire! Be coolness and peace for Abraham” (al-Anbiyā’: 69)

And it speaks to him because he experiences a great upheaval within him; this upheaval is due to the fact that it is the end of prophethood, and the settlement of humans with rationality, which people will submit to. Therefore, there are three interrelated stories in a purely Platonic sense, meaning the philosopher king, Dhul-Qarnayn – who has neither a prophetic nor a sacred character – is not only a ruler, but a ruler who was a student of Aristotle and was refined philosophically. He is therefore the first deserving ruler after the prophethood.

Therefore, I believe that Surat al-Kahf – whose name is ancient, with people agreeing from the time of the Prophet that this Surah has always been called al-Kahf and has not changed – has a profound Platonic meaning, since Plato in the seventh chapter of his book the Republic says in the story of the cave that common people look at things under the illusions of the deceptive sun. Then when they go out to the real sun, things become clear to them as they are. However, this is not enough; as Plato says in the last book of the Republic, this is not sufficient because this exit [in which the real sun is encountered] does not achieve truth and rationality in the end. Rather, the opposite is true, as the human being will still stagger from seeing the sun because of its effect. He has to have a philosophy in order to help him to live under the influence of the sun and the power of ideas and opinions which constitute philosophy.


Q8: You have mentioned that there is similarity between Parmenides’ poem and Surat al-Ikhlas. Can you explain that please?

YS: If we look at the poem of Parmenides – which we know was written in the Sixth Century BC – we see the similarity with Sūrat al-Ikhlas

قل هو الله أحد، الله الصمد، لم يلد ولم يولد، ولم يكن له كفواً أحد
“Say, He, God, is One. God (samet), the Eternally Sufficient unto Himself. He begets not; nor was He begotten. And none is like unto Him”

It is noticeable that Sūrat al-Ikhlas is the only sūrah whose title is not found in the body of the Qur’anic text. In all of the other surahs, their names are presented in the body of the text, such as Yūsuf, al-Dukhān, al-Ḥadīd, and others. The word “al-Ikhlas”, however, is not found within the verse in this way, which raises a question. The verses of Surat al-Ikhlas are in fact nothing but a metaphor for a philosophical saying that inspired the Prophet Muhammad, which we find in a poem I translated from ancient Greek into Arabic in 1994. We read in the eighth section the following:

“Now stand up and say: He is the one (samet) he has neither given birth nor been born, he is a master, and he has no equals”

The word “صمد” has the same meaning as the Greek word samet. It refers to how, when you hit a certain piece of metal, rock, or a particular stone, you will not hear any echo from it. When one of the sheikhs here in Tunisia heard about this translation during my conversation with him, he sighed, looked at me for a long time in deep thought, and then said: “I believe that Muhammed bin Abdullah had been revealed to him by Parmenides”. This is true, and this is the miracle.

The Qur’anic text is not only a literal miracle, but it is also a miracle in that it represents the assimilation of all of the world’s knowledge into a single individual named Muhammad. This is miraculous in that it absorbed all of this previous and later knowledge [including that of Greek philosophy] and contained all of it within it a relatively small book.


Q9: Sūrat al-Kawthar contains many words of Greek origin. Can you explain that?

Firstly, let us read the words of this surah, which are:

“إنا أعطيناك الكوثر فصل لربك وانحر إنّ شانئك هو الأبتر”
“Truly We have bestowed abundant good upon thee. So pray to thy Lord and sacrifice. Truly thine enemy shall be the one without posterity” (al-Kawthar: 1-3)

Now, we can study the meanings of these words: الكوثر (al-Kawthar) , شانئك (“your enemy”), and الأبتر (“the one who has been cut off”). Experts in language and exegesis extract from the word kawthar that thing which God presented to Prophet Muhammad, meaning “gift and present”. In their interpretation of the word kawthar, these commentators have suggested that it refers the “torrential and clear spring” that the Prophet was promised in Heaven. They declared that this issue should remain ambiguous. However, they should realise that this is, first of all, a linguistic issue. The linguists have acknowledged that there are words that are derived from the same form of kawthar, which are foreign to the Arabic language.

Secondly, if we accept the assumption that kawthar is alien to Arabic, and consider the semantic structure of the fragment in which it appears, we will find that this word is of Greek origin, derived from the word katharos. The Greek dictionary associates this term with the simple and elementary meanings of two words: ” صاف ” (clear) and ” خالص ” (pure). The phrases ” دون وصمة ” (without stain) and ” دون دنس” (without defilement) also point to the conclusion that the term has an ambiguous religious connotation, referring to another phonemic variant of the word katharos that is identical to its Qur’anic counterpart “kawthar”. If we go back to the well-known play of Sophocles, “Oedipus the King,”, we find in the first verses that the monk repeats, who talks about “Oedipus”, the hero of this play, and says to him, “O Oedipus, you have hereby received the Katharos, so pray to your lord and slay”. These verses show the clear relationship between prayer and sacrifice associated with the purification process. That is, in the sense that the Prophet Muhammad entered prophethood after this purification, which was a Greek ceremony carried out by the temple priests.

Plato referred to it in the Republic, mentioning the Greek word kathario, which means “spiritual purity.” Then there is a second sign of Greek influence which is, “إنّ شانئك هو الأبتر”. In the ancient Greek popular language, there is the word shano – meaning swearword or to swear – which carries the same meaning in the Qur’anic word ” شانئك”.

Thirdly, the word الأبتر “cut off” of “amputated”, which in colloquial [Arabic] language is now used to describe how the man who has no children has no wing, or has lost his wing, means the same thing as the Greek word aptēre.

Now that we have explained the meanings of these words, we can summarize the meaning of this surah as follows: Muhammad ascending to the rank of prophethood and approaching the divinity can be compared to the Greeks’ purification ceremony, which was the first stage of entering the ranks of philosophers and priests. This process requires a ritual purification, which is conveyed by the word kawthar in the Qur’an. The Sūrah also suggests that after the purification process, you should thank God, pray and sacrifice for Him. As for the one who cursed him, he deserves the shame and deserves the word of the amputee; he is a man who has no wing or continuity with others.


Q 10. Why were the early Muslim philosophers more interested in studying Aristotle’s works than Plato, given that Plato is considered in the West to be the father of philosophy in the ancient world?

YS: I raised this question when I translated Plato’s the Republic from ancient Greek into Arabic. I asked in the introduction why it could be that Plato, the author of 32 or 33 dialogues alongside his other works was neglected, with not even one complete dialogue of his being translated by the early Muslims. All that was translated from his works were summaries or separate texts brought and summarized by al-Fārābī, Ibn Sīna or others; but there is no a complete translation of any of Plato’s work.

My analysis of this phenomenon is that the early translators, most of whom were non-Muslims but Christians, Jews, or Sabeans, became aware and afraid because they discovered that the content of Plato’s works was highly similar to that of the Qur’an. For example, some of the descriptions are identical, e.g. the Qur’anic phrase:

“أحصينا كل شيء عدداً”
“We have counted every number” (al-Jinn: 28)

Is also found in Plato and Pythagoras. Also, Plato’s statement “Everything is unclean for those who do not understand” in the Sophist dialogue also appears in the Qur’an:

“ويجعل الرجس على الذين لا يعقلون”
“And He lays defilement upon those who understand not” (Yūnus: 100)

Whereas the Aristotelian style is a scientific, ordinal and systematic style that is not in any way similar to any religious text, Plato’s style is akin to a religious text, be that the Qur’an, the Torah, or the Bible. It consists of fragments that we call in the Qur’an “verses”; these fragments are the impetus for the word, which is not present in Aristotle. Therefore, the early translators feared Plato. He is still considered frightening by some thinkers who ask the question: was he a philosopher, or a prophet?

Many also ask what is the meaning of Platonism, and what is the direction of Platonism; is it towards pure rationalism, or is it towards a mixture between mythology and logos? This is what the Qur’an and the rest of the religious texts from the Torah and the Bible tried to emulate; that is, to mix between the mythical and the rational in religious discourse. Plato is considered the first philosopher to follow this method of mixing, because we see that philosophers before Socrates were two types; they either used symbol or rationalism. Plato is the only one who was dynamic, and likewise the Qur’an frequently moves between rational discourse and stories or myths. Plato is the only one who distinguished between them and made each one an absolute independent of the other, and yet overlapped them within the same dialogue.


Q11: Was Plato a monotheist, i.e., believed in the existence of one God?

YS: I think that all Greek philosophers were monotheists; they believed that God and nature were the same thing. They also believed that the world is organized and arranged in a certain way, but we do not know by which element; one believes that it is the element of water while the other believes that it is the element of fire. However, all of them believe that there is a single power responsible for the beginning of the first creation, and that, after this first beginning that formed the world, developments and arrangements emerged that many Greek philosophers believed to be characterized by unity. For the Greeks, there was a difference between Zeus – the god of the pagan gods – and Theos – from which the word theology comes – with Theos being the abstract god or the conceptual god.

Plato believed that the pagan gods were popular deities who fit with society, customs and relationships with people. For example, there was the god of rain, the god of love, the god of war and others. But great philosophers such as Aristotle and Plato felt that these gods fit simple mindsets and popular beliefs and were therefore inferior to the conceptual God. The great philosophical minds believe that there is a power in the world that was responsible for creating this world, and it is the one God. Therefore, I believe that Plato was a monotheist and that Aristotle was a monotheist also.


Q12: You and others like Nasr Hamid Abu Zaid are accused of trying to underestimate the Qur’an and Islam. What is your comment on this please?

YS: I do not know; what would be the objective for an intellectual to attack a religious institution, whether that be Islam or another religion? I mean, what would be the intellectual or historical benefit of such an attack? And what is the meaning of the accusation that a person commits blasphemy against a religion? Any ordinary thinker would shun this; neither I, nor Abu Zaid, nor any of the thinkers from the Twelfth Century – who were charged with the same accusation – had the goal of belittling Islam. On the contrary, I feel that I belong to a family, to a society and to a circle in which Islam appreciated and respected. I want to be proud of what my father was proud of and what those close to me were proud of. For this reason, it is impossible for me to accuse Islam falsely. The question is, what is the origin of this accusation and where does it come from? It comes from people who believe that I will harm what came from their ancestors.

My goal is to revive an Islam that adapts to our societies, our families and our daily behaviour, to move beyond this stagnation. There are many errors among the beliefs of the early Muslims, and now when we search for Islam in all media and all means of information, we find things that that no ordinary human being can believe in. As for me, I want to – or at least contribute to – bringing those who believe in Islam beyond the irrational acts committed in the name of Islam even at the highest academic levels, such as Al-Azhar, Zaytuna, and mosque preachers. Around us is a severe lack of rationality, and this is what makes us from Indonesia to Senegal to Mauritania backward peoples, peoples who do not think properly. This is my position now, and I will not back down from it.


Q13: I would like to finish this interesting interview with you by asking you about the story of Al-Fārābī with the Prince Saif al-Dawla al-Hamdani which you mentioned in your book. Could you explain the meaning of this story to us? And any final words you would like to end the interview with?

YS: Yes, this story has many lessons. It is the story of Saif al-Dawla, a prince from the city of Aleppo in the tenth century CE who was receiving in his court the encyclopaedic philosopher and author of the Great Book of Music Abū Nasr al-Fārābī. When the Prince invited him to sit, al-Fārābī replied: “Would you like me to sit where I am or where you are?”. This is a question about status, not place. With this, this philosopher ruled that he [al-Fārābī] would not be anything other than the court clown, and so he took out from his pocket some sticks and strings that he had collected and played with them, at which everyone in the court laughed until tears came out. He then untied them and put them back together and played; everyone cried. He then dismantled and rearranged them again; everyone in the court fell asleep. Then, he left. This story shows us that there is no place for the thinker [i.e. the philosopher] where there is a dominant power that cannot produce intellectual fertility.

Before verifying this story – which I read in the early days of high school – I researched for its origin in reliable Arabic references which could be cited in a book such as the one I wrote. I spent more than six months researching until I found the whole story in the Epistles of the Brethren of Purity, which did not mention al-Fārābī but another philosopher. To end this interview, I will say that the phenomenon of the Brethren of Purity defines the historical philosophical void that afflicted the Arab-Islamic civilization. Despite the enormous works that we see in the Epistles of the Brothers of Purity of philosophical, mathematical, astronomical, sociology and history, they did all of it secretly, without disclosing the names of the philosophers who contributed to their works. This was their position which cannot be just a fear of authority inasmuch as the preservation of their works in the face of the power of the ruler who destroyed hundreds of treatises and essays of the Mu’tazilah, such as the works of Ibrāhīm al-Naẓẓām and Abū Hadhil al-‘Allaq, whose works we do not know today except for their important titles. Their anonymous position was also due to the opinions of their opponents from among the entourage, who would not hesitate to label them as unbelievers.

The phenomenon of the Brethren of Purity is the strongest symbol of the historical condemnation of freedom of expression in the religious sphere, which continues to this day for all acts of thought in the Arabic and Islamic world.

Chapter 20

Plato’s World Soul

“This world is indeed a living being endowed with a soul and intelligence … a single visible living entity containing all other living entities, which by their nature are all related.” – The Timaeus 30b-d

The Timaeus is perhaps the pre-eminent Platonic dialogue. It is here that Plato presents his efforts to chart the structure and origins of the cosmos; a monotheistic credo; and a form of mysticism that bridges the two. This mystical monotheism was accentuated by Plotinus (d. 270 CE), who in turn provided Augustine (d. 430 CE) and other church fathers much of the material they needed to reconcile the Platonic view of the cosmos with Christian doctrine.

The text also serves as evidence for Plato’s Pythagoreanism. His fascination with numbers shines throughout, as does his conviction that the world should be understood as a living creature. Like Pythagoras, Plato sees mathematical relationships and geometric shapes as being encoded into the universe’s secret language, constituting the building blocks of reality. But despite offering what appears to be a comprehensive account of the cosmos, the Timaeus is less a work of scientific analysis and more a collection of mysteries; a faint yet beguiling impression of that which lies beyond human perception and reason.

It follows that the Timaeus is among the most difficult of Plato’s dialogues to study. Even the Roman statesman, scholar and philosopher Cicero (d. 43 BCE) who translated it into Latin insisted that he did not really understand it. At least two of its principles are for certain though: there is one universe, and one God. These were critical for Plato’s later acceptance among theologians during the Middle Ages and Renaissance, who took the Timaeus’s cosmological teachings as doctrine. It might be advisable, however, that we do not do the same. Plato himself did not present the ideas in the Timaeus as doctrine, but rather as an invitation for us to contemplate and understand things ourselves. After all, he believed that we should undertake the challenge of studying the world using our intellects, even those realms which transcend our perceptive abilities.

In Plato’s day, the world itself seemed boundless beyond comprehension; its resources inexhaustible; and the dangers and wonders of nature a test for human knowledge. With the passage of time, it could be said that humanity has grown considerably more conscious of the finite nature of the earth and its resources. Plato’s conceptualisation of the cosmos as a living creature has thus become more pertinent than ever, pointing to the discovery of the ecological systems through which the world breathes, moves, transforms and regenerates itself.

While for the present purposes we will only skim the surface of the Timaeus, in-depth studies of the work can be sought elsewhere.

First, let us summarise the Timaeus’ story of how the cosmos or the universe came into being – whether we are to take it literally or metaphorically.

Figure 20.1 shows the geocentric model of the universe in which all the heavenly bodies – the Sun, Moon, stars, and planets – all revolve around the earth. The cosmos is roughly spherical, and has predictable and regular motions. According to Plato, these motions must be due to the presence of a soul, since the soul (in Greek, psyche) is the principle of all motion.

Fig 20.1: The Geocentric Vision of the Cosmos.

In Plato’s view, the universe can be compared to a single living body, the World’s Body, with a soul, the World Soul. It is like a kind of animal, and indeed the word anima – the root for “animal” – derives from the Latin translation of the Greek word for soul (psyche). Plato conceives the World Soul as being a purely rational soul, with the rational part of the human soul being built along the same lines according to the same principles (hence the human soul is a microcosm). It is important to consider here that, for Plato, the principle of rationality is mathematical. Furthermore, in contrast to the World’s Body, which is made up of the four elements of Earth, Air, Fire, and Water, the World Soul comprises an invisible mixture of three highly rarefied entities, namely Being, Same and Different. These are identified as the highest entities in another dialogue, the Sophist. Together they form a coherent mass, which Plato structures according to mathematical principles:

“First of all, he [“the indivisible and unchangeable being”] took away one part of the whole [1], and then he separated a second part which was double the first [2], and then he took away a third part which was half as much again as the second and three times as much as the first [3], and then he took a fourth part which was twice as much as the second [4], and a fifth part which was three times the third [9], and a sixth part which was eight times the first [8], and a seventh part which was twenty-seven times the first [27].” – Timaeus 35b-c

We see here that the mixture is arranged in ascending order of size as follows:

1  2  3  4  8  9  27

The Being’s next step is to identify two middle terms (that is, the harmonic and arithmetic means) between the successive terms of this series and insert them between each, resulting in the following:

1 (4/3 3/2)  2 (8/3)  3  4(9/2 16/3 6)  8  9 (27/2 18)  27

Further musical intervals then split each doubling, giving rise to the Pythagorean octave. Perhaps the most important detail here is how the primary Being realises the octave as it emerges from the simplest numbers that are there right from the beginning. In the third stage of Plato’s cosmogenesis, this linear progression of intervals (the second stage) is cut it into strips with their ends joined to make a circular band, with one band slightly inside the other and crossing it at an angle. We can think of each band as the belt of a celestial sphere that defines the orbit of a constellation or a planet. The outer band, which he calls the Circle of the Same, drives the sphere that contains the so-called fixed stars which rotate from East to West; the direction in which the constellations appear to move in the night sky for the observer (in the northern hemisphere). The inner band, which he calls the Circle of the Different, rotates in the opposite direction, from West to East; the direction the planets appear to move in the night sky to our observer (Fig. 20.2).

Figure 20.2: Circles of the Same and the Different

This inner band then gets subdivided into seven concentric bands, each of them a different size proportional to the original sequence of doubles and triples. Their values are one, two, three, four, eight, nine and twenty-seven. These seven bands determine the orbits of the Sun, Moon and the five visible planets, which each move at different speeds and angles. “Planet” derives from the Greek term for “wanderer”, reflecting how the planets occasionally wander off their set course in the phenomenon known as retrograde motion. This complex structure of bands and spheres “wandering” and rotating in different directions at different speeds is what the Timaeus proposes to be the underlying regularity of the cosmos (Fig. 20.3).

Figure 20.3: Planets added to the Circle of the Different.

Plato proposes that that this generates, through the natural order of numbers, the intricate motions of the heavenly bodies. Some appear less orderly than others, but he insists that in these cases the orders are simply more complicated. They are always, like everything else in the cosmos, ordered. Plato seems to expect future mathematicians and astronomers to specify precisely what the order is, but is nonetheless certain that it is exists – no matter how difficult it may be to observe – and that it is regular. As such, he claims that not only is the cosmos alive, being imbued with a soul, but that it is also intelligent. As human beings we too are intelligent, owing to our own individual souls constituted of the same ingredients and constructed along the same mathematical principles as the World Soul.

In his work Introduction to Arithmetic and Manual of Harmonics, Nicomachus (d.120 CE) rearranged the seven numbers from the first stage of Plato’s sequence into elegant and instructive formation called the Lambda (Fig. 20.4). The Lambda outlines the first table of proportions developed from the prime numbers 2 and 3. Nicomachus set the powers of 2 along one side of a triangle, and the powers of 3 along the other side.

Figure 20.4: Nicomachus’ Lambda

Then, he filled in all the other numbers with the perfect fifth ratio, 2:3, and perfect fourth, 3:4, resulting in a more complex configuration (Fig 20.5).

Figure 20.5: The Lambda filled with numbers 6, 12 & 18.

The Lambda can be extended indefinitely (Fig. 20.6).

Figure 20.6: The Extended Lambda of the World Soul.

This is not the first time that we have seen a configuration like the Lambda of the World Soul. If we place it alongside the Tetractys of Pythagoras (Fig. 20.7) we find close similarities – but also important differences. In both diagrams, the numbers 1, 2, 3, and 4 appear in the same positions. However, while the Tetractys of Pythagoras places the number five in the middle, the Lambda of the World Soul Lambda replaces it with 6. The central position of six in the latter is highly significant: it is not until the number 6 appears in the middle of the third row that the World Soul can be generated. Hence Plato called the number 6 the Perfect Number; without it, there could be no World Soul.

Figure 20.7: The Tetractys compared to the World Soul Lambda

The number 6 perfect not only because 1+2+3 = 6 and 1x2x3 = 6, but also because 6 cubed (6 x 6 x 6) is 216. This number, sometimes referred to as “Plato’s number”, is what we will call the code. As we proceed, we will find that it recurs again and again.

Those who have read the Bible’s Revelation of St John of Patmos will be familiar with the number of the Beast, 666, which is also the number of man. This number, if taken as 6 x 6 x 6, also gives us 216.

“Here is wisdom. Let him that hath understanding count the number of the beast: for it is the number of a man; and his number is Six hundred threescore and six.” – Revelation 13:18 (KJV)

The heart of the Lambda of the World Soul (Fig. 20.6) is the number 216. Since the World Soul is analogous to the human soul – and 666 is called “the number of man” – we may infer that Plato’s number is being alluded to in the Bible, three centuries after the composition of the Timaeus.

Consider how, without 6 replacing 5, the Lambda of the World Soul could not have been generated. To the same end, both the Bible and the Qur’an teach us that the world took six days to create:

“For [in] six days the LORD made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that in them [is], and rested the seventh day: wherefore the LORD blessed the sabbath day and hallowed it” – Exodus 20:11 (KJV)

“Surely your Lord is God, who created the heavens and the earth in six days — then sat Himself upon the Throne, covering the day with the night it pursues urgently — and the sun, and the moon, and the stars subservient, by His command. Verily, His are the creation and the command. Blessed be God, the Lord of all Being.” – Qur’an 7:54

Notably, the Qur’an specifies that the Sun, Moon and stars were created within the six days – just like Plato in his own passages about creation.

The World Soul diagram (Fig 20.6) will prove valuable to our work, encompassing all the numbers mentioned in both Qur’an and the Bible. After applying the formula introduced in the next chapter, we will see how they all fit into the World Soul.


Plato’s Number 216: The Code

216 is said to be Plato’s number. But where did it come from, and why? The number, sometimes also called the “geometrical number”, the “nuptial number”, or the “number of the bride”, is alluded to in a notoriously elusive passage within the Republic (Book VIII, 546b). Its corresponding translations do not allow an unambiguous interpretation, and there is no one shared consensus as to the number’s meaning. In fact, there is no real agreement as to its true value, though 216 is most commonly ascribed to it.

While there are great lexical and syntactical discrepancies between the many translations of the Republic, we find an account of Plato’s number in Paul Shorey’s version:

“Now for divine begetting there is a period comprehended by a perfect number, and for mortal by the first in which augmentations dominating and dominated when they have attained to three distances and four limits of the assimilating and the dissimilating, the waxing and the waning, render all things conversable and commensurable [546c] with one another, whereof a basal four-thirds wedded to the pempad yields two harmonies at the third augmentation, the one the product of equal factors taken one hundred times, the other of equal length one way but oblong,-one dimension of a hundred numbers determined by the rational diameters of the pempad lacking one in each case, or of the irrational lacking two; the other dimension of a hundred cubes of the triad. And this entire geometrical number is determinative of this thing, of better and inferior births.”

Figure 20.8: The First Pythagorean Triangle

Several factors have led scholars to assign the value of 216 to Plato’s number, with some claiming that it may be of Babylonian origin. For one, 216 is the cube of 6, the Perfect Number, (63 = 216). Furthermore, it also relates to Pythagoras’ Theorem (Fig. 20.8) in which the same triple is 32 + 42 = 52 (Fig. 20.9). 216 would be its three-dimensional equivalent, since the total volume of three cubes (27, 64, 125) amounts to its volume (33+ 43+ 53= 63). While there may be other reasons behind the significance of 216 that run deeper than mathematics, this alone renders it a remarkable number. Finally, let us not forget that 60, the product of 3 x 4 x 5, was the basis of the Sumerian numerical system in which it was ascribed to their god Anu or An, the “Father of the Gods”.

By ascribing such great significance to the number 216, Plato is subtly conveying how the simple ratios that allow us to create music are in fact the building blocks of the entire universe.

Figure 20.9: 3² + 4² = 5².


Plato’s Sirens

In Chapter 13, Professor Youssif Seddiq explained the parallels between Plato’s Myth of Er and verses of the Qur’an. We may now further enrich this comparison.

Plato’s eschatological myth appears in the Book X of the Republic (616b-617d), where he describes how the solider Er, who died in a battle, comes to life twelve days later and reports what he saw and heard in the afterlife having been chosen by the gods to act as their messenger. The Myth concerns not only the judgment of the soul, but also the structure of the universe and the mechanisms of the celestial movements. According to the myth, when souls have passed seven days in the meadow at the crossroads of heaven and hell, they leave for a journey of four days. On the fifth day, they come to a light from above which binds heaven and earth. This light is like a thread, at the end of which the Spindle of Necessity is suspended, which causes the rotation of the spheres. There are eight spheres, each of which creating a perfect circle. The outer comprises the fixed stars (in the Timaeus, The Same), and the interior circles of the Sun, Moon and planets turn more slowly and in the opposite direction (The Different). At the top of each circle, Plato says that a Siren sings a single note. The Sirens are eight in number, each representing a note of the octave, and form the harmonious composition of the “Music of the Spheres”.

According to the scholar James Adam, Plato’s Sirens are “a poetic fiction to express the music of the spheres”. He continues:

“The seven planets by their movements were supposed by the Pythagoreans to give forth sounds corresponding to the notes of the Heptachord. This was probably the original form of the “music of the spheres”. Later it was held that the circle of the fixed stars had a note of its own, and a “harmony” or mode resulted like that of the Octachord.”

Among later writers, Philo of Alexandria (1st Century CE) compared the alluring power of the harmony of the spheres to that of the Sirens’ song, while Theon of Smyrna (2nd Century CE) wrote that the Sirens were embodiments of the sounds of the stars. Proclus (5th Century CE) presented another view, suggesting that the sounds were no more than the activities of the Sirens, and that the Sirens were the divine souls of the world’s spheres. Proclus interprets Plato’s statement to mean that each Siren sang a single tone as a metaphor referring to the velocity of each star.

We find two parallels with the Platonic account of the eight sirens and the Qur’an. Firstly, there is mention of a single sound “blown with one blast” in heaven:

“Then when the Horn [Siren] is blown with one blast” (Qur’an 69:13)

Secondly, later in the same Surah, God speaks of the eight carrying his Throne:

“And the angels will be at its borders. The Throne of thy Lord above them will be carried by eight on that Day” (Qur’an 69:17)


A New Interpretation of Plato’s World Soul

Regarding the World Soul, the scholar John Michell has remarked that:

“For over two thousand years, Plato scholars have laboured inconclusively to establish the exact numerical composition of his world soul, for therein is a great prize. Encoded in Timaeus’s brief history of creation is the essential knowledge that Plato distilled through his study of the traditional science. Among its contents are the canon of musical harmony that determined the forms of government in the ancient world, the scientific cosmology that gave it stability, and above all, the basic formula behind that mathematical standard from which ancient philosophy and every branch of art and science were derived and developed. That is the prize that has tempted the learned in every age to try their hand at decoding Timaeus.”

Perhaps there is another way to explain what Plato was trying to tell us about the World Soul in his work, without neglecting or replacing what has been discussed above. Let us consider the following interpretation, based on a method which may prove to have extensive and profound applications for the reader, and which to my knowledge has never been discovered before.

Plato spoke of three circles: Being, Same, and Different. He also deemed 6 to be the perfect number. Now, let us call the circles by their numbers instead of their names: #1, #2 and #3. If 6 was Plato’s perfect number, and the Bible and the Qur’an state that there were six days of creation (plus one day of rest in the Bible), then we have a difference of one day between the two periods.

We can represent this in a simple table:

Let us now add further rows beginning with the addition of 6 days to cycle # 1; 7 days to cycle # 2; and 1 day to cycle # 3, which we will keep repeating until we arrive at the full 360 days of cycle #3:

Here we see that Cycle #3 forms a complete circle amounting to the familiar duration of 360 days or degrees. As for Cycles #1 and #2, we arrive at 2160 and 2520 days respectively. Both of these are crucial Platonic numbers. 2160 (216 x10) is Plato’s code, and 2160 multiplied by 12 brings us to 25920 years, the duration of Plato’s Great Cycle (that is, if we change the days to years, our reasons for doing so being explained in the next chapter).

What of 2520? There are two types of octave: the higher octave, which is double that of a given frequency, and a lower octave, which is half. The higher octave of 2520 is 5040, which was of course another of Plato’s most important numbers.

Here we have shown the numbers that are related to the number 24, which of course could be interpreted as the number of hours per day (furthermore, both 144 and 168 are related to the Law of Vibration during the 24 hours of the day).

Based on my method, we have now three cycles of 360, 5040, and 25920. We will find that these have great applications in the world of cycles if used properly; what we have shown here is only the tip of the iceberg. Far more is to be revealed if we plunge deeper into Plato’s world of numbers.

Chapter 24

Jonah (Yūnus) and The Whale

“For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the great fish, so will the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.” (Matthew 12:40)

The Old Testament hero Jonah (in the Qur’an, Yūnus) is recognised as one of the twenty-five prophets in Islam. According to a hadith, the Prophet Muhammad once said to the Christian slave boy Addas that “Jonah was a Prophet of God and I, too, am a Prophet of God”. Allegedly, when the boy heard that the Biblical figure of Jonah was revered as a Prophet in Islam, he was inspired to convert to the faith.

The chronicle of Jonah and the Whale is alluded to on several occasions in the Qur’an, most notably in the tenth surah, Surah Yūnus, and the thirty-seventh surah, Surah aṣ- Ṣāffāt (“Those Who Set The Ranks”). It is also mentioned in the twenty-first surah, Surah al-Anbiyā’ (“The Prophets”), where Jonah is referred to not as Yūnus but as Dhū’l-Nūn, meaning “the man of the whale”. All three surahs have been classified as Meccan.

The body of Surah Yūnus describes a confrontation between believers and unbelievers; the kind of confrontation which Jonah was himself of course embroiled in. However, despite being named after him, this Surah only actually mentions Jonah once:

“Why has not a single town believed and benefited from its belief, other than the people of Jonah? When they believed, We removed from them the punishment of disgrace in the life of this world, and We granted for them enjoyment for a while” (Qur’an 10:98)

This short passage refers to the enjoyment and ease which were granted to the people of Nineveh after Jonah eventually prophesied there. However, it is not until Surah aṣ- Ṣāffāt that these events are recounted.

Unlike the Biblical narrative, Surah aṣ- Ṣāffāt does not begin with God commanding Jonah to prophesy against the lawless city of Nineveh, whose residents were – as Islamic tradition holds – partaking in sinful behaviour. Rather, it opens with Jonah on the ship which he had rebelliously boarded instead of going to Nineveh to obey God’s command and prophesy there. The Qur’an does not recount this detail, nor does it mention the raging storm at sea that God inflicted to punish Jonah, likely because it assumes that the reader is already familiar with these details as given in the Bible.

The Surah does describe, however, the passengers’ decision to throw Jonah off the ship through “casting lots” (or, in other translations, “drawing straws”). Having been plunged into the sea, the Qur’an recounts how:

“The whale swallowed him, for he was blameworthy.” (Qur’an 37:142)

Jonah’s experience in the whale is not fully recounted. The text only states that, had he not been “among those who glorify” (i.e., a Prophet), he would:

“Have tarried in its belly till the Day they are resurrected.” (Qur’an 37:144)

Jonah is thereby released from the whale’s belly and thrown onto the shore. The Surah, though being otherwise sparse in its description, does mention the detail that a plant grows over him:

“And We caused a gourd tree (yaqṭīn) to grow over him.” – (Qur’an 37:146)

The plant that grows over Jonah is often rendered into English as a “gourd tree” or sometimes a “castor oil plant”. However, it is more accurate to translate the original word – yaqṭīn – as “pumpkin plant”.

The Qur’anic account concludes with Jonah’s return to his city of over one hundred thousand people; the only number which is explicitly mentioned in the Surah:

“And We sent him to [his people of] a hundred thousand or more” (Qur’an 37:147)

The people of the city believe the story of his repentance, and are rewarded with the enjoyment as mentioned previously in Surah Yūnus:

“And they believed; so We granted them enjoyment for a while” (Qur’an 37:148)

Evidently, Surah aṣ- Ṣāffāt’s account of Jonah and the Whale is lacking in detail, being condensed into just ten verses. However, some of these gaps are filled elsewhere, with Jonah’s initial disobeying of God’s command to go to Nineveh and his eventual repentance in the belly of the whale being recounted in Surah Anbiyā’ (where he is called Dhū’l-Nūn):

“And [remember] Dhu’l-Nun, when he went away in anger, and thought We had no power over him. Then he cried out in the darkness, “There is no god but Thee! Glory be to Thee! Truly I have been among the wrong-doers”. So We answered him, and saved him from grief. Thus do We save the believers.” – Qur’an 21:87-88

The absence of certain details is also compensated by later exegetes who offer more detailed explanations of Jonah’s time inside the body of the whale. Al-Ṭabarī writes, for example, that God made its body transparent so that Jonah could see the “wonders of the deep”. This contrasts with Jewish and Christian commentaries’ descriptions of the whale’s interior. Some Hebrew accounts, for example, describe it as being illuminated by a giant white pearl hanging from its ribcage. Aside from the discrepancies between how different traditions have later imagined the whale and other details in the story, however, the Biblical and Qur’anic accounts themselves are generally consistent with one another.


The Bible

Jonah is one of the “Twelve Minor Prophets” of the Old Testament who each have their own Books. The Book of Jonah, which is only four chapters long, tells of his struggles with his prophetic mission. It presents the same narrative as the Qur’an, but with additional detail.

The biblical account begins with Jonah hearing the words of the Lord:

“Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and cry against it; for their wickedness is come up before me. But Jonah rose up to flee unto Tarshish from the presence of the Lord, and went down to Joppa; and he found a ship going to Tarshish…” – Jonah 1:2-3

Here we are told explicitly that Jonah was sent to Nineveh, the capital of the Assyrian empire. His mission was to condemn the wickedness – not just polytheism – of the Ninevites. We later learn that their major sin was violence (Jonah 3:8), for which the Assyrians were famous. Jonah went to Joppa (modern day Jaffa), a city on the south Syrian coast. There he departed for distant Tarshish – probably the city of Tartessos at the Straits of Gibraltar – to escape God’s presence. At this point, we do not learn why Jonah fled his prophetic mission.

After the ship set sail, God sent a mighty storm that threatened to break it apart. The sailors tossed all their cargo overboard to lighten the load. Here it is specified that the passengers cast lots to discover whom the gods were angry at, and the lot fell to Jonah. They knew he was a prophet fleeing his god. They tried to row to shore, but the storm was too great. Finally, at Jonah’s instruction, they reluctantly threw Jonah overboard and the sea calmed. The sailors offered vows and sacrifices to Jonah’s god in thankfulness (Jonah 1:4-16).

Just as in the Qur’an, it is described how “Jonah prayed unto the Lord his God out of the fish’s belly” (Jonah 2:1). Finally, after three days and three nights inside the great fish, Jonah’s prayer was answered:

“The Lord spake unto the fish, and it vomited out Jonah upon the dry land” (Jonah 2:10).

The Biblical account also concludes with Jonah’s return to the great city of Nineveh, where he warned the residents that God’s was planning to overthrow it in forty days. All the people of Nineveh, from the king down to the lowest commoner, accepted Jonah’s message, and fasted in sackcloth, sincerely repenting from their violent, wicked ways. As a result, God decided to spare Nineveh (Jonah 3), at least for the time being. We know from history that the city of Nineveh was later destroyed, its power transferred to the Babylonian empire.

In an epilogue, Jonah is described to have sunk into a deep depression, wishing for death out of anger that Nineveh would be spared from God’s wrath. He sat in a booth that he constructed east of the city, where God caused a gourd plant to spring up overnight to give him shade. Jonah was glad for this. But then God sent a caterpillar that killed the gourd plant, causing it to wither overnight as fast as it had grown the night before. The next day, the sun was shining, and a hot wind came in from the east. Jonah, fainting from heat, became angry and wished for death again. God told Jonah that since he had pity on the gourd, that sprang up in a night and perished in a night, how much more should he have pity for the great city of Nineveh, with 120,000 people who couldn’t tell their right hand from their left (Jonah 4). Here the story abruptly ends.

A question commonly asked about the biblical account of Jonah pertains to the kind of fish it was that swallowed him. Most believe it to have been whale, but the book of Jonah identifies it only as “a great fish”. It evidently possessed considerable size, not only from its description as dag gadol – literally “great fish” – but from the fact that it could swallow a human in one gulp. The Greek translation of the book of Jonah renders this “great fish” into Greek as mega ketos. In ancient Greek, ketos could mean any kind of huge sea creature or sea monster. The Latin form of the word is cetus, from which the term cetacean (a whale or any other large sea creature) derives. In Greek art, ceti were depicted as serpentine fish. The name of the constellation Cetus also derives from this word. It seems most plausible that Jonah was swallowed by a whale and not some mythical sea serpent; that said, if we imagine Jonah Chapter 2 as a story told by seafarers, it could well have been envisioned as a fearsome monster arising from the depths of the ocean.


Jonah and Perseus

The seafaring Greeks had several stories that featured terrifying sea monsters as big as ships. In some of these tales the hero, like Jonah, was swallowed alive, then to miraculously emerge from the belly. In some cases, the hero would slay the creature in ferocious battle.

The first of these stories was the story of Perseus and Andromeda. In this tale, Poseidon, the god of oceans, floods and earthquakes, sends the sea monster Ketos to destroy the country of the King Cepheus of Ethiopia. A prophecy predicted deliverance from the sea monster if the princess Andromeda was offered up as prey to the creature from the depths. So, King Cepheus chained his daughter Andromeda to a rock as a sacrifice for the dreaded sea monster. But when the legendary Greek hero Perseus beholds Andromeda’s beauty, he tells the king he will slay the monster if Cepheus promised Andromeda his hand in marriage.

In the version of the story, written by the mythographer Apollodorus (ca. 100 ce), Perseus simply slews the sea monster, thereby rescuing the damsel Andromeda. But in the version authored by the Alexandrian Greek poet Lycophron (ca. 275 bce), the serpent carries Perseus off in his jaws and swallows him whole, but is slain when Perseus, deep in his belly, thrusts a blade through his liver.

In yet a third version, the setting changes from Ethiopia to Joppa (Jaffa); the same city where the Biblical Jonah embarks on a ship bound for Tarshish (Jonah 1.3). This new location appears in numerous traditions, starting in the 400s bce. Tourists in the Greek and Roman eras were shown marks on the rocks in the harbor at Joppa from the chains that once bound Andromeda, and a nearby fountain with reddish waters where Perseus washed off his bloodstains. Locals also pointed out the huge bones of the sea-monster Ketos as proof that this was the location of the story of Andromeda and Perseus, until the Roman general Marcus Scaurus transported the bones from Joppa to Rome in 58 BCE. The displayed skeleton was reportedly over forty feet long and stood as tall as an elephant. The Church Father Jerome (347-419 CE) noted that both Perseus and Jonah were associated with Joppa, and Cyril, patriarch of Alexandria (400s CE), thought that the Jonah story and the Perseus story shared a common mythic origin.

In sum, then, both Perseus sand Jonah were swallowed whole by a huge sea monster. This creature was called Ketos; the same word used to translate the great fish in Greek translations of Jonah. Furthermore, one version of this story locates this adventure in Joppa; the same seaport from which Jonah set sail.


Jonah and Hercules

A very similar story was told about the Greek hero Hercules, who rescued the princess Hesione from the same sea monster, Ketos. The Greeks told many tales about the adventures of Hercules, the offspring of the god Zeus and a mortal woman, who lived in legendary times a generation before the Trojan War (ca. 1200 bce). In one version of the story of the Argonauts, Hercules was one of the companions of Jason on board the Argo in search of the Golden Fleece. The legendary voyage of the Argonauts took them past Troy, a strategic fortress city of Asia Minor, where Hercules found the city in utter turmoil. King Laomedon of Troy had offended Poseidon, the Greek god of the ocean. As punishment, the god sent the sea monster Ketos to seize people found along the Trojan coastline. Much like in the tale of Perseus and Andromeda,

“Oracles proclaimed that there would be release from these adversities if Laomedon were to set his daughter Hesione out as a meal for the Ketos, so he fastened her to the rocks by the seaside. When he saw her lying there, Hercules promised to save her… and so Hercules slew the monster and rescued the girl.”

Different versions of the story paint a vivid picture of the battle between Hercules and the sea serpent Ketos. In one tale deriving from the historian and mythographer Hellanikos of Lesbos (ca. 480-395 bce), Hercules entered through the mouth of Ketos and attacked it from inside its belly (Scholiast on Homer Iliad xx.146). Another account by John Tzetzes, the Byzantine scholar and poet (ca. 1100 ce), says Hercules, in full armor, leaped into the jaws of the sea-monster, and was in its belly for three days hewing and hacking it, and then came forth without any hair on his head since it had been scalded off by the stomach acids of the beast (Scholiast on Lycophron 34). The story is also illustrated in an artistic scene portrayed on a Greek jar at the Museo Nazionale in Perugia, Italy, that shows Hercules, disguised in princess Hesione’s clothes, drawing his sword as he enters the tooth-lined jaws of the fearsome sea serpent.

The story of Hercules and the sea monster Ketos takes place in a different setting to the story of Perseus and Andromeda at Joppa, the port city of Jonah. But one version has an interesting parallel not found in the tale of Perseus; that Hercules, like Jonah, spent three days in the belly of the sea serpent before emerging victoriously.


Jonah and Jason

We may finally mention Jason, another Greek hero, the leader of the Argonauts; famous shipmates who embarked on a sea voyage in the magical boat Argo in search of the fabled Golden Fleece. A winged ram named Chrysomallos (meaning “Golden Sheep”) had rescued a legendary hero named Phrixus, carrying him to the kingdom of Colchis in the shadow of Mount Caucasus at the far eastern end of the Black Sea. According to this fable, Phrixus then sacrificed the ram and gave its fleece to Aeetes, king of Colchis, who hung it on the branches of an oak tree in a sacred garden near the sea.

Much later, a Greek king named Pelias wanted to get rid of Jason, whom he feared as a charismatic rival for the throne, and so sent him on the impossible mission of finding and stealing the Golden Fleece. The story was most famously told in the epic poem Argonautica by Apollonius of Rhodes, written during his stay at Alexandria (ca. 250 bce). After many adventures, Jason and his crew of heroes aboard the Argo arrived at far-off Colchis, where Jason had to overcome a huge dragon that guarded the Golden Fleece, steal the fleece, and sail back to Greece, chased by the fleets of King Aeetes.

Various artistic representations of the story show the dragon attempting to swallow Jason, and Jason fighting it off, sword in hand, in a battle scene reminiscent of Perseus or Hercules fighting the sea monster Ketos. However, the creature in this story was not a sea serpent, but a dragon; a monstrous land serpent with a reputation for loving gold. The literary and artistic motif of a huge serpent attempting to swallow its victim whole, however, appears somewhat related to the parable of Jonah.

A particularly interesting pictorial parallel to the Jonah story appears on a beautiful Attic red-figure vase created ca. 490-475 bce by the Greek vase painter Douris, found in 1833 in the Etruscan port city of Cerveteri in Italy and currently housed at the Gregorian Etruscan Museum in Vatican City (Fig. 24.1). It depicts a “scaly and wide-eyed monster vomiting a limp, naked, bearded, and long-haired Jason. To the right of the scene is Athena, with spear in her right hand, bird in her left, and perhaps looking into the eyes of the dragon, whom she has commanded to disgorge Jason. Behind the dragon’s head, at left, the Golden Fleece hangs as limp as Jason, on a tree laden with fruit.”

Figure 24:1 Athena watching as Jason is spat out of the dragon, ca. 480 BCE (Museo Gregoriano Etrusco, Vatican City)

In this artistic portrait, apparently representing a literary version of the Jason story that has not survived, the dragon is not slain, but survives and disgorges Jason at the command of the deity Athena; much as God commanded the great fish to disgorge Jonah safe upon the shore in the biblical tale.

These stories of Greek heroes and sea monsters and dragons suggest that the author of the biblical book of Jonah was familiar with Greek myths and incorporated various literary motifs into the chapter on Jonah and the “whale”: the great sea monster swallowing a person whole (Perseus and Hercules); his surviving three days in the belly of the beast (Hercules); and then being vomited up by the monster at divine command, weak but alive (Jason). Perhaps even the location at Joppa, where the bones of a giant sea creature were displayed to tourists in Greek and Roman times as proof of the tale of fearsome creatures from the depths (Perseus), was based on this tradition. All these details could have been borrowed from contemporary Greek stories known to the well-read biblical authors.


Jonah and Oannes (Berossus)

Finally, we may take note of a tradition in the History of Babylonia, written by Berossus around 280 bce, that has interesting parallels to Jonah. Recall from a previous chapter that Berossus gave an account of the ten long-lived kings who ruled in Babylonia before the Great Flood. The Babylonians also had traditions about seven semi-divine beings called apkallu, which were half human and half fish (Figure 24:2) and revealed various forms of divine wisdom to the earliest kings before the flood. One of these apkallu appeared to each of the first seven generations of the pre-flood world, revealing to humankind all the arts of civilisation necessary for their survival. It was this knowledge, recorded on tablets, that was buried in the temple city of Sippar before the flood and retrieved afterwards in the flood story of Berossus.

In various cuneiform texts, the first of these apkallu was named Uan or Uan-Adapa. In surviving quotations from Berossus he was called Oannes:

“In the very first year there appeared from the Red Sea (the Persian Gulf) in an area bordering on Babylonia a frightening monster, named Oannes, just as Apollodoros says in his history. It had the whole body of a fish, but underneath and attached to the head of the fish there was another head, human, and joined to the tail of the fish, feet, like those of a man, and it had a human voice. Its form has been preserved in sculpture to this day. Berossos says that this monster spent its days with men, never eating anything, but teaching men the skills necessary for writing and for doing mathematics and for all sorts of knowledge: how to build cities, found temples, and make laws… At the end of the day, this monster Oannes went back to the sea and spent the night. It was amphibious, able to live both on land and in the sea.”

Archaeologists have confirmed that the apkallu fish-men were frequently depicted in Babylonian and Assyrian sculpted reliefs, as Berossus said, and that they closely resembled Berossus’ description. Indeed, such sculptural reliefs have prominently appeared on the royal palace and temples at Nineveh.

Figure 24:2: Oannes the Fish God, by Austen Henry Layard , A plate from the book by Austen Henry Layard , A second series of the monuments of Nineveh , London, 1853.

Was the story of Jonah, swallowed by a sea monster, somehow related to the fish-man Oannes? Berossus described Oannes as a “frightening [sea-]monster” who spent part of its time in the sea and part on land. Its appearance was certainly suggestive of a fish that had swallowed a man. Furthermore, their names are strikingly similar; both the Septuagint translation of the book of Jonah and the Christian Bible render Jonah into Greek as Ioanes, which is very close to the Oannes of Berossus, as well as to the name Yūnus in the Qur’an. Finally, that images of apkallu were found on the entrance of the Palace of Sennacherib and temples at Nineveh suggests a possible association of Oannes and the great city. This led some scholars of the past to infer that the biblical prophet Jonah, swallowed by a sea monster and later emerging from the sea to warn Nineveh of impending disaster, might contain a distant echo of Oannes, the wise half-human sea monster of Babylonian myth.


Alternative Interpretations

Scholars of previous centuries have tended to focus on identifying the literal details of the story, asking such questions as: What sort of fish swallowed Jonah (Yūnus)? What exactly was his experience of being swallowed? What was it like to spend three days in the belly of the whale, as the Bible describes, and what did he do whilst inside?

But let us go beyond these questions, instead looking at the story through another lens. What are its symbolic and metaphorical elements, and what can we learn from them? Some Western scholars and critics have attempted to study it within different paradigms, in particular a mythological paradigm (which has tended to interpret the story as an ancient Sun myth) and a psychological paradigm.


An Ancient Sun Myth Interpretation

T. W. Doane’s Bible Myths and Their Parallels in Other Religions suggests that the Biblical account of Jonah and the Whale could be a version of an Ancient Sun Myth. Accordingly:

“It was urged, many years ago, by western scholars and other critics, that the miracle recorded in the book of Jonah is not to be regarded an historical fact, but only as an allegory, founded on the Phoenician myth of Hercules rescuing Hesione from the sea monster by leaping himself into its jaws, and for three days and three nights continuing to tear its entrails”

If the stories of Jonah and Hercules are allegories, they could represent the same thing; most plausibly, the alternation of Day and Night. The Sun is swallowed up by Night to be set free again at dawn, and from time to time suffers and endures the maws of eclipses and storm clouds. To quote the Hungarian scholar of Islam Professor Ignaz Goldzhier (d.1921):

“The most prominent mythical characteristic of the story of Jonah is his celebrated abode in the sea in the belly of a whale. This trait is eminently Solar … As on occasion of the storm the storm-dragon or the storm-serpent swallows the Sun, so when he sets, he (Jonah, as a personification of the Sun) is swallowed by a mighty fish, waiting for him at the bottom of the sea. Then when he appears again on the horizon, he is spit out on the shore by the sea monster.”

Thus, those heroes who remain for three days and three nights in the bowels of the Fish could symbolise the Sun at the Winter Solstice. From December 22nd to 25th – that is, for three days and three nights – the Sun remains in the Lowest Regions, the bowels of the Earth or the belly of the Fish. It is then cast forth to renew its career.

If Jonah being swallowed by a big fish does represent the Sun being swallowed up by Night, then the biblical account can be thought to transform an intelligible story into an unintelligible one. This phenomenon is explained by the sociologist Max Müller (d. 1900), who spoke of “the comparison of the different forms of Aryan Religion and Mythology” in India, Persia, Greece, Italy and Germany:

“In each of these nations there was a tendency to change the original conception of divine powers; to misunderstand the many names given to these powers, and to misinterpret the praises address to them. In this manner some of the divine names were changed into half-divine, half-human heroes, and at last the myths which were true intelligible as told originally of the Sun, or the Dawn, or the Storms, were turned into legends or fables too marvelous to be believed of common mortals. This process can be watched in India, in Greece, and in Germany. The same story, or nearly the same, is told of gods, of heroes, and of men. The divine myth becomes a heroic legend, and the heroic legend fades away into a nursery tale. Our nursery tales have well been called the modern patois of the ancient sacred mythology of the Aryan races.”

Jonah’s mission to preach unto the inhabitants of Nineveh could also be a component of the old “Myth of Civilization”. In this interpretation, he is nothing more than the Indian Fish Avatar of Vishnu (Fig. 24:3) or the Chaldean Oannes. At his first Avatar, Vishnu is alleged to have appeared to humanity in form like a fish, or half-man and half-fish, just as Oannes and Dagon (Fig 24:2) were represented among the Chaldeans and other nations.

Speaking of Oannes, Professor Goldzhier said:

“That this founder of civilization has a Solar character, like similar heroes in all other nations is shown… in the words of Berosus, who says: ‘During the day-time Oannes held interaction with man, but when the Sun set, Oannes fell into the sea, where he used to pass the night ‘ . Here, evidently, only the Sun can be meant, who, in the evening dips into the sea, and comes forth again in the morning, and passes the day on the dry land in the company of men.”

Figure 24.3: Fish Avatar of Vishnu, “Dagon Derketos, Jonah” anonymous engraver, published in Calmet’s Fragments … of the Holy Scriptures, 1800.

Jonah, then, is just like these other personages insofar as they are all personifications of the Sun. They all emerge from the sea of darkness out of the mouth of a fish, and are all benefactors of mankind. We can thus entertain the theory that Oannes, Joannes, and Jonah all represent the same Ancient Sun myth, with the variations between the stories owing simply to the modes of representation unique to each culture.


Psychological Interpretation

The story of Jonah or Yūnus has long been the subject of psychological analysis, owing to the fact that it contains all of the usual elements of psychoanalytical interpretation, such as flight from responsibility, regression into protective enclosures, denial, anger and self-pity:

“The text …. spills over with an embarrassment of hermeneutic riches: it comes packed with all kinds of weird and wonderful objects on which to extemporise in whatever botanical-meteorological-moral-psychological-theological idiom might take one’s fancy.”

The cross-cultural interpretive framework derives from the psychological analysis of Carl G. Jung and scholars influenced by his archetypal theories, including Joseph Campbell. Accordingly, the story of Jonah or Yūnus represents a symbolic expression of a deep psychological transformation. While the biblical and Qur’anic traditions interpreted the story literally, the archetypal approach favored by Jung, Campbell and others emphasises this subliminal approach.

While some passages in scripture refer to actual historical events, occasionally corroborated by archaeological findings, others suggest derivation from a primordial or even universal past. Certain recurring motifs, themes, images, symbols, metaphors and narratives can be found across different traditions from all over the world. The Biblical and Qur’anic story of Jonah and the whale could be one such instance, being perhaps only a variation of a ubiquitous myth in which heroes are devoured by monsters then to escape from their bellies.

Carl Gustav Jung (d. 1961) formulated groundbreaking theories about the mechanics of the human mind. He regarded the psyche as being comprised of a number of separate but interacting systems, the primary ones being the ego, the personal unconscious, and the collective unconscious. According to Jung, the ego represents the conscious mind as consisting of the thoughts, memories, and emotions which we are aware of. It is largely responsible for feelings of identity and continuity.

The unconscious, however, is just as important in shaping our personalities, and consists of two dimensions. The first, the personal unconscious, contains forgotten information and repressed memories within what Jung called “complexes” (collections of thoughts, feelings, attitudes, and memories linked together by a single concept). The more elements attached to a complex, the greater its influence on the individual. They affect both the present and the future, and in his view were key to both the analysis and treatment of neurosis. The second dimension is the collective unconscious, perhaps Jung’s most original (and controversial) contribution to the theory of personality. The collective unconscious is a universal version of the personal unconscious, which holds mental concepts, abstractions and patterns shared by all members of the human species.

According to Jung, the human mind has ideas “imprinted” onto it as a result of evolution. These universal predispositions stem from our ancestral past, including, for example, fears of the dark, snakes and spiders. However, more important than isolated tendencies are those aspects of the collective unconscious that have developed into separate sub-systems of the personality. These ancestral memories, which Jung called “archetypes”, manifest in the literature, art, and dreams of all cultures. The archetypes commonly appear in religious traditions, but are ultimately shared by the whole human race. For Jung, our shared primitive past is the basis of the human psyche, directing and influencing present behaviour.

Jung’s ideas were not accepted to the same extent as those of Sigmund Freud (d. 1939), the founding father of psychoanalysis. This is perhaps because Jung did not write for the layman, and as such his ideas were not as greatly disseminated as Freud’s. Moreover, his theories were somewhat elusive and mystical, influenced by his own fascination with Eastern religions. Jung himself argued that the constant recurrence of symbols from mythology in personal therapy and in the fantasies of psychotics support the idea of an innate collective cultural residue. In line with evolutionary theory, it may be that Jung’s archetypes reflect predispositions that once had survival value.

In 1949, the American mythologist Joseph Campbell introduced his theory of the “monomyth” in his work The Hero with a Thousand Faces. This influential study of comparative mythology “formulated the dual schemas of the Hero’s Journey, a universal motif of adventure and transformation that runs through all of humanity’s mythic traditions, and of the Cosmogonic Cycle, the stories of world – creation and the dissolution that have marked cultures around the world and across the centuries”.

In his model of the heroic adventure, which he called the monomyth, Campbell applied a structural framework to mythical literary narratives, suggesting the ritual initiatory structure of literary quest myths all over the world.

In his interview with Bill Moyers in the 1988 documentary “The Power of Myth” in 1988, Joseph Campbell articulated his theory as follows:

“The mythological significance of the belly is that the belly is the dark place where digestion takes place and new energy is created. The story of Jonah in the whale is an example of a mythic theme that is practically universal, of the hero going into a fish’s belly and ultimately coming out again, transformed.

The hero must descent into the dark. Psychologically, the whale represents the power of life locked in the unconscious. Metaphorically, water is the unconscious, and the creature in the water is the life or energy of the unconscious, which has overwhelmed the conscious personality and must be disempowered, overcome and controlled.

In the first stage of this kind of adventure, the hero leaves the realm of the familiar, over which he has some measure of control, and comes to a threshold, let us say the edge of a lake or sea, where a monster of the abyss comes to meet him. Then there are two possibilities. In the story of the Jonah type, the hero is swallowed and taken into an abyss to be later resurrected – a variant of the death-and-resurrection theme.

The conscious personality has come in touch with a charge of unconscious energy which it is unable to handle and must now suffer all the trials and revelations of a terrifying sea-journey, while learning how to come to terms with this power of the dark and emerge, at last, to a new way of life.”

Jung also viewed the belly of the whale as a kind of Journey into Hell comparable with those described by Virgil and Dante, but also a journey to the Land of Spirits, or, in other words, a plunge into the unconscious. He also saw Jonah’s ordeal as representing, at a psychic level, the rebirth of the individual. In psychological terms, Jung expanded this thought to incorporate the sudden changes that engulf a person’s life, leaving him completely disoriented and confused as though he had been swallowed by a whale and then spat out into a new reality. As the protagonist learns to redefine himself, he arrives at a new understanding of himself and eventually develops a whole new personal identity.

The parable of Jonah and the whale is mythic in the mind of these scholars who go well beyond its surface meaning. As Jung noted:

“When we take a myth literally, we do injustice to the myth. Indeed, such an argument is decidedly ridiculous because it takes the myth literally, and today this seems a little bit too naïve”

Let us say that the story of Jonah and the Whale does indeed have a psychological dimension, but that we may go deeper than this still. In the Bible, Jonah is said to have stayed in the belly for three days and three nights. Though this detail is not mentioned in the Qur’anic version of the story, and thus we cannot extend our astronomical interpretation to it, notice that:

3 days x 24 hours x 60 minutes x 60 seconds = 259,200= 25,920 (The Platonic Cycle, or the Code).

Also, 3 days = 72 hours (it takes the Sun 72 years to spend one degree in the zodiac), and 72 x 360 = 25,920 years

Once again, Plato’s fingerprints are everywhere.

Plato and the Quran

“ There is a numerical code that emerged in ancient Mesopotamia , became embedded in the Torah and the Gospels in Alexandria , and appeared later in the Qur’an : the key to its profound meaning can be found in the inspired writings of Plato “


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