By origin, the term Hurufism comes from the Arabic word “Harf” (حرف), meaning “a letter” of the alphabet. The plural form “Hurufun” (حروف) signifying many letters, seems to be the etymological basis of Hurufism. The academic discipline, or morphology, therefore, investigating the secret of letters is called in Arabic “Ilmu-l Huruf” (الحرف علم) – or in other words, a Lettrist Science; or educational principle. But “Hurufism” has a number of semantic layers in its system of abstractions. For example, that letters and numbers can be calculated in a variety of ways to solve the mysteries of both, past and present time, as well as the future. For the Hurufis, alphabets have a power which transcends mere script. The source of Hurufism disappears into ancient ages. Some investigators have classified this ideology as an independent religion, while others describe it in terms of a mystical sect inside Islam. In which case, modern observes need to explore this school in two quiet distinct ways: Esoteric and Lettrist. This may be why Hurufi scholars tended to work in either an academic manner, or as magicians probing beneath the veil of material surfaces. On one hand, this philosophy raised the human mind to the stars. On the other hand, it gave comfort to those seeking solace in a complicated world. Either way, alphabetical letters formed the foundation upon which these enterprises were built.
Letters, of course, take us directly to manuscripts. Explaining ciphers within these manuscripts is a question of analysis. Indeed, theoretical connections between letters, numbers and the world around us, is as old as human civilisation. Moreover, after a post modern critique of rational structures, it is far easier to give a meaningful context to these pursuits. As such, we can see ancient illustrations of this endeavour in the schools of “Pythagoreanism”. Students of this ancient Greek method held fast to the belief that creation itself could be explored through active combinations of letters and numbers. The famous theorem formulated by Pythagoras was a product of this process. This also partly explains the often unsettling similarity between the followers of Pythagoras and the Hurufis. After all, both schools used ciphers (the former based on mathematics and the latter on alphabets), in their mystical explorations. Nevertheless, the Pythagorean system in its employment of Egyptian, Persian and Indian philosophical insights was a powerful influence on the minds of the lettrists.
A second comparable mechanism at work on Lettrist views of life may be found in the Hebrew “Kabbalah”. Clearly, this ageless system of ciphers is incredibly close to the Hurufi undertaking, with its secret attribution of subtle qualities to letters and numbers. Once again, it was claimed that by the careful arrangement of materials, the relationship between infinity and the finite could be examined. In trying to solve this paradox, Kabbalist scholars sought to define the nature of the universe and Human Being; the nature and purpose of existence. All of these archaic intellectual machines can be seen within Hurufism, as well as in the modern sect of Bektashi, itself obviously influenced by Hurufist ideology.
With this in mind, the exact date when Lettrism became an overt influence on Islam is questionable. However, the nature and purpose of individual letters in secret texts provoked a number of discussions, which eventually focussed on the Koran as a document. Why, it was asked, were letters of the alphabet written beneath the headings of some surahs (scriptures), in a half-opened manner, like senseless scribbles. This may be why Turkish theologians such as Yashar Nuri Ozturk says, rather confusingly, in his book “Tarihi Boyunca Bektashilik”, that: “Giving different and sometimes mystic meanings to these letters started during the time of the Sahabes… even, Imam Ali’s sentence: “The Koran consists of Fatiha (the opening), Fatiha consists of Basmala (liturgical formula) and Basmala consists of the Ba (letter). I am the dot under this Ba (ب)” is still very popular”. By this one can see the enduring legacy of lettrism.
Curiously, eminent Islamic scholars who were engaged with “huruf”, such as Mansur Al Hallaj (858-922), Ibn Al Nadim, Ibn Arabi (1165-1240), Ibn Khaldun (1332-1406) were always at the forefront of these heated topics. Certainly, initial efforts to provide an exegesis of “Holy Texts” can be read in the works of Hallaj Mansur, who lived in the 10th century. He was a propagandist of the Qaramatians, who tried to explain the Koran by Te’vil (signs of God). Indeed, Hallaj Mansur was the first Islamic lettrist to discuss the secret content of letters and numbers in his tract “Kitab al-Tavasin” and his divan. More dangerously perhaps, he uttered while in a mystical reverie the forbidden phrase “Ana-l Hakk” meaning “I am the Truth”, a statement reserved for God himself. By implication, this scholar appears to be claiming that both the Universe and God are in Human beings. Consequently, he was arrested, and after 11 years in prison was tortured and then executed in the year 922 C.E.
A second important exemplar of lettrism is found in the person of Muhyiddin Ibn-i Arabi. Certainly, this formidable writer demonstrated (point by point), vast numbers of lettrist abstractions in his seminal text “El Fütuhat El Mekkiye” (The Meccan Illuminations), which was clearly influenced by Jewish and Kabbalistic scholars. The basis of his beliefs seems to centre on a theoretical unity of religions. As we may read: “My heart can take every form; a pasture for gazelles or a Church for Christian priests; A Temple for Idols, the Kaaba for Hajjis, Pages of the Koran and written Tablets at the same time. I am given to the religion of love. Wherever, way travels the Caravan of Love, there is my religion and belief.”
With this in mind, it is useful to reflect upon the life of Shiabaddin Fadlullah Astarabadi Naimi (1339? – 1394?), the creator of Hurufism as a belief system. It is he, who developed the initial methods of lettrism. Moreover, as a man devoted to mysteries he valued the audacity of esoteric techniques and claimed to have discovered correspondences between letters and their numerical counterparts. Naimi also, applied his doctrines to religious liturgies and edicts as well as to the 28 and 32 letters of the Arabic and Persian alphabets. Astonishingly, he even tried to explain the secrets of God Himself, hidden in letters and numbers, creating the “Ilmu-l Huruf” as a means by which future events could be uncovered.
In Hurufism: God is a hidden treasure (Kanz-i mahfi). But the truth, reality and soul of everything are sounds. For Fazlullah; sound existed in every being, even in lifeless objects. For example, the clash of two stones allows their voice to be heard. Furthermore, our human view of this hidden God is revealed through sounds, which have become known as the word. The universe is endless. Constantly moving and creating motion. Such motions create natural events. God appears in the face of human beings as physically sculpted letters. These letters are the divine word. And in this word, there are countable elements.
Therefore, we can see the 28 similar features in all living beings in each and every Human face. In which case, the real God is a Human being, created by atomic particles before all holy books were written. The uneducated, however, could not grasp these facts.
The totality of lines in every Human face (hair, two eyebrows, and two sets of eyelashes) is 28, showing us why the Koran was written with 28 letters. By adding the four principle elements (Air, Water, Fire and Earth) the figure 32 is reached; the exact number of letters in the Persian alphabet. Also, the five Islamic Pillars of Shahadah (basic creed), Salah (ritual prayer), Zakat (alms-giving), Sawm (fasting during the month of Ramadan) and Hajj (pilgrimage) are also hidden in these letters. As a theoretician, Naimi explained all the conceptual bases of his Sect in his sacred writings “Javidan-name” (half in Persian, half in Astarabadi dialect), “Muhabbetname” and “Novmname”, along with an orchestrated campaign of propaganda starting around the year 1376 in Isfahan. After a short time Naimi gathered a multitude of followers from different social groups. By the end of the 1380’s, Naimi came to the Region of Shirvan, and began to live in the city of Baku, continuing to find supporters. From his “Vasiyyatname” (testament) we can read that intellectuals, merchants and statesmen found inspiration in his thoughts and accepted Hurufist doctrines. Moreover, Baku city became the heart of his school.
Neither the political nor the religious situation, however, went in their favour. The State, for its part, became afraid of the rapidity by which the new doctrine was spreading. Moreover, highly placed Islamic clerics sensed a threat to their worldly power. Therefore, by the command of Tamerlane’s son Miran Shah, the openly radical Naimi was captured and imprisoned. In 1394, state authorities took him to Alinjah castle, in Nakhchivan, and proceeded to execute this thinker in the most barbaric fashion imaginable; first, they decapitated him, and then flayed him. Following this, the authorities showed his dead body to the assembled people. Afterwards, they burned the remains of his corpse in an act of unbridled savagery. In his last will and testament (sent from prison), Fazlullah Naimi asked all of his family, friends and supporters to hide themselves and leave the region of Shirvan.
Even after the death of Fazlullah, the ever increasing influence and number of Hurufi adherents brought about oppressive measures by the State. As a general policy, followers of this philosophy were routinely flayed, or burned alive. Survivors found that the only way to keep body and soul together was to go to Anatolia; especially the regions of Sivas, Eskisehir and Western Anatolia. Within a relatively short period of time, therefore, hurufi propagandists were amassing in these areas. Some of them eventually went to Balkan countries, such as Albania and Romania, in order to continue their preaching missions.
Originally the Turkish writer Abdulbaki Golpinarli (whose family come from Azerbaijan), commented in his researches “Hurufilik Metinleri Katalogu” and “Fadl Allah Hurufi” that, hurufism had been largely propagandised by the Turkish scholar Mir Sharif and especially by Imadaddin Nasimi, who he freely admits hales from Azerbaijan. Moreover, Golpinarli claims that Mir Sharif brought many Hurufi books to Anatolia, including Fazlullah Naimi’s works. What is more, he further contents that Nasimi was one of Fazlullah’s chief spokesman (heading the caliphate), spearheading propagandist efforts on a wide scale: on one occasion even travelling to Ankara in order to meet the great Turkish thinker, poet and Sufi Haci Bayram-i Veli. It is clear from the documents that Nasimi converted a lot of people to the philosophy of Hurufism along the way. With hindsight, it is easy to see how some of his prominent supporters even gained access to Ottoman government buildings.
Also, when examining the 16th century Turkish biographer Tashkopruzade Ebu-l Ismauddin Ahmed Efendi’s work “Shakaik-u Nu’maniye”, we read that one of the caliphate of Fazlullah (an unnamed person in the city of Edirne), found that he was able to influence the young Ottoman King Fatih Sultan Mehmed (1432-1481), even taking up lodgings in the castle with some of his adherents. However, this situation worried both the Vizier Mahmud Pasha and the Mufti Fahreddin-i Acemi to the extent that they feared the conversion of the young king to Hurufist beliefs, which they interpreted as pantheistic (Hulul). Following these accusations, the Hurufies were arrested and then sentenced to death.
In the same work, readers may also discover accounts describing how the Hurufis were burnt alive: “Near the city of Edirne, in an empty area, towards the end of the 1450’s; a gigantic pit was dug for the burning of thousands of people. When the digging was finished, (the hollow had been filled with a veritable forest of wood), it was then set alight. The heat was like Hell. When the fire reached into the sky, soldiers pushed untold thousands of bound captives to the edge of the hollow. First, a turbaned elder prayed. Then the assembled populace stood behind the surrounding soldiers, watching events unfold. At the instigation of the elder, they then prayed to God and cursed their enemies. Afterwards, soldiers started to throw their imprisoned victims into the fire. The screams of burning people were inevitably mixed with the sound of prayers and violent accusations. Everywhere was shaded by a dark smoke and the smell of burning meat polluted the air. Nobody, however, left the square until this tragedy finished; they waited until the very last person had become carbonized. Shockingly, those assembled around this horror cursed the souls of both the dying and the dead. Then they left the square. The only sin of these living, human sacrifices was being “Hurufi”, or in other words, martyrs for one of the most mysterious, complicated and potent sects in the history of Islam. If these people raised hell, however, they deserved to burn in flames.”
This singular atrocity signalled the start of the persecution and punishment of anyone influenced by Hurufi doctrines in Ottoman controlled lands. The documents of the 15th and 16th centuries show us that the devotees of Hurufi ideas were especially pursued in the Balkans. Most of these so-called sectarians were forcefully arrested, executed, and then their dead bodies were burnt. Even those members of other schools who were indirect sympathisers of hurufi concepts were imprisoned and unjustly condemned to death. At the forefront of this persecution through belief were the Qalandari’s, known in the West as Dervishes. As they wandered from city to city singing the Gazels of Nasimi, they were perceived as a threat to the state and accused of spreading dangerous propaganda. In spite of these severe punishments as well as almost totalitarian social pressures, Hurufi thoughts were adopted by a number of other groups. Perhaps, particularly the 16th century popular troubadours (ozans) of the Balkans, such as Otman Baba, Fahii and Usuli deserve our attention as highly significant ideologues.
According to Golpinarli, this cultural phenomenon remains highly suggestive and he points to the astonishing fact that the Hurufies had their own ritual practices based around the life of their founder. For example, they went on Hajj pilgrimage in Alinja, where Fazlullah had been murdered. As their movements became ever more physically restricted, they camouflaged their activities by joining other sects and disguising Hurufi beliefs by appearing to represent other groups; especially the Alevi-Bektashi religious community. This may be why some investigators have claimed that this astute move destroyed original Bektashi beliefs. Perhaps, this also explains why the Hurufi School as a clear ideological entity seems to simply disappear into the mists of antiquity.
Yet it appears reasonable to ask why Hurufi ideas spread so quickly? Unsurprisingly, the answer is to be unearthed in Hurufi concepts of Human equality. By enquiring into the meaning of letters, they managed to include every human being in universal processes, thereby declaring political suffrage. Orthodox religious systems, relying on the exclusivity of books, started withering like leafs on a tree, due to the fact that explanations to sacred texts were now available. Moreover, the ideology of the Hurufis, which was propagandised on a massive scale in Anatolia, also influenced Christian heterodoxy: a subversive side effect of this remarkable philosophy, which had lasted in Ottoman areas from Byzantine times. The best known of these so-called Christian heretics are known to history as the “Bogomiles”, a movement which is said to have interacted with the Hurufis for a brief period. At the end of the day, however, these philosophers were considered to be Islamic heretics and their ingenious ideas treated with fear and incomprehension.