Subhan is one of the most oft recited names of Allah in the Muslim community, repeated several times in each of the five daily prayers, oftly repeated in the Quran and recited hundreds of times on rosaries by many Muslims every day. In fact, rosaries are called ‘tasbeeh’ by Muslims, which means to mention the word ‘Sabbaha’, which is the root-word comprising of the letters ‘Seen, Ba, Ha’.
Traditionally, the word Subhan is translated as ‘the Pure One’, which is a correct meaning, but this emphasized name of the immensely resourceful, intricate knower of all knowledge, ruler and king of all, surely holds much more to its meanings.
For so many years, this humble writer had been rehearsing the same meaning (the Pure One) with complete reverence on my part, when, one day, reading through the Quran I came across the passage where the angels were arguing with Allah upon the deputation of Adam on earth, when they said;
“Will You make in it, one who will make corruption in it and shed blood, and we purify (nusabbihu) with Thy praise and sanctify (nuqaddisu) for Thee; said (Allah) surely I know what you know not”. (2:30)
For a moment, I was stunned! How is it that we always use the word ‘sabbaha’ to describe Allah’s purity, and here! the angels, instead of calling the praise of Allah by saying ‘oh Allah! You are pure’, are asserting that we (the angels) are purifying ourselves and sanctifying ourselves? That did not make sense, because these words are considered by us as words of praise and celebration, and it is worthy of none to praise himself in front of the King of all Kingdoms… Curiosity led me to the lexicon.
In the dictionary, we find the following set of meanings for the word ‘sabbaha’ (Seen, Ba, Ha)
1. swim, course along the water
2. glide, pass, spread, the sundisk glides (sabaha) along its path
3. travel far
4. run swiftly
5. occupation in task, going to and fro
6. dig (in the earth)
It is notable that the common factor in all these meanings is ‘going from one medium to another’ or from one reality to another, like the swimmer is constantly oscillating from the medium of air to the medium of water and back… And like, when the sun disk enters the horizon of our earth, it is entering a new reality, a new world, with every coming moment.
Going far (travel), dig (in the earth) also refer to escaping fully from one set of reality to a completely different set of realization. The same goes for being occupied diligently in a task, in which a person completely cuts off from his environment and goes into a specific concentration of thoughts.
So how would these meanings fit into what the angels were saying? Perhaps they were saying that, ‘we go far and travel from one reality to another to purify ourselves, like passing through a sieve’. Because the reality (realization) of an atom is different from the reality (realization) of an ant, or that of a planet; the angel appointed on the control of the atom would have to dig into its world, its body, its thought, and its destiny.
So in that case, the angels are saying that they are constantly changing states, going through awe, wonder and toil, which purify their own thought, feelings and material, towards their praise for their Lord. But… what is Allah’s answer to the angels in the very next ayahs? It seems that though acknowledging the ability of the angels to move in and out of different realities, Allah is putting an even bigger challenge in front of the angels; ‘Do you know the names of all things?’ As if, Allah has given knowledge and power to the angels only in specific realms, but not given them comprehensive knowledge to put all the things together and to see the whole picture.
“and taught Adam the names, all of them, then affronted them to the angels and said, ‘inform Me with the names of these, if you are truthful’.” (2:31)
“said (the angels), ‘You are pure (Subhan), we have no knowledge except what You have knowledged us, surely You are the Knower the wise’.” (2:32)
“said (Allah), ‘oh Adam! inform them of the names’, and then he informed them of the names”. (2:33)
“said (Allah), ‘hadn’t I said to you that I verily am the knower of the unseen (ghaib) of the skies and the land and know what you show (tubdoon) and what you hide (taktumoon)”. (2:34)
But again… Why would and how could the angels hide anything from Allah? Surely there is something amiss here, what do these two words actually mean? The base word of ‘tubdoon’ is badaa (Ba, Daal, Alif), meaning; to begin, create afresh, going from one land to another, repeat from the start, experience. The base word of ‘taktumoon’ is katama (Kaaf, Ta, Meem) meaning to conceal, keep back, hold. So, Allah must be saying ‘I know what you create (by My command) and what you hold back’, i.e., He knows what realms of realities they experience and how far their reach is, as they create new realities with His command and seize them with His command.
These meanings fit in amazingly into the blessed name of Allah, ‘the Subhan’. The One who creates and holds back all things (assigning subordinatory powers to angels). He is capable of coming in and out of all realities, realizing their states at all levels. Taking ‘man’, as just a single example, He knows and realizes us at the level of the cells, the nerves, the oxygen and the carbon. He is in the heart, the brain, the soul, the conscience, the subconscious. (Here, it should be clear, that the coming, going or being anywhere of Allah, have no similarity to those of man, Allah has used these words allegorically with us, so that we are able to understand in our small ways, somewhat of what His act could be, but we should be clear that in this physical time-space realm that we exist in now, it is impossible to know what these words would translate to, in His unimaginably magnificent realms, as He has not gadgeted us with such accessories that could detect the slightest of those realities in this earthly life.)
But Allah, in His own ways of presence, as He tells us that He is the Seer, the Listener and is closer to us than our jugular veins, and that He knows us in ways we ourselves are unable to know ourselves, then is He not only fully realizing me; He is realizing the billions upon billions living on the planet, and all the stars in the skies, every photon, every microwave traveling in space. He is, inside and outside everything, so swiftly (by virtue of His knowledge, not physically) that He can manage all the numbers and all the variations, yet He is, all the time, totally composed in His Person; occupying His throne, never away from it. Just close your eyes and imagine an Entity so swift to be everywhere all the time, to be so knowledgeable to be able to break-in the physical code of all things. Not only creator and sustainer but absolute Realizer of all things.
That is where the meaning ‘pure’ comes from, if you can be in everything all the time, you overpower all situations, you are independent of them. The more you know the more you are sieved, and if ‘by your knowledge’, you are always ‘in’, but otherwise you are always ‘out’, then you are ‘pure’. Because, you will be in supreme command and you will be disconnect from the internal effects of the system; and out of everything you have created, like a scientist, you will be ready to associate the ‘good’ of it to yourself but the ‘bad’ of it, you would rather discard and dump.
Consider one of the most revered recitations held by the Ummah, proposed by the prophet (PBUH) himself: “subhan Allah wa bi hamdihi subhan Allahil Azeem”.
Meaning, He being the absolute realizer of everything, even His hymn is pure and purifying; as the chanter of His praise goes through the realization of the inconceivable infinity, his soul is moved away from the time-space phenomenon, to a possible extent, whereby the hymn has the ability to move the rememberer, from one realm to another, though temporarily and in an unmeasurably small way. And this subjective movement purifies the chanter, giving a slight realization of the Divine Purity, which He would allow, at His will, by way of His hymn.
Now, consider yet another mind blowing ayah;
“Everything in the skies and the land purifies itself for Allah….” (57:1)
What!!… Does everything in the skies and the land come and go from one reality to another and back! Isn’t this exactly what the modern quantum physics is purporting; that the photons and the electrons have shown a very strange property of being visible and invisible many times in the smallest amounts of time, i.e., they repeatedly go through the cycle of existing and ceasing to exist and coming to existence again?
“The atoms and the elementary particles themselves are not real; they form a world of potentialities and possibilities rather than one of things and facts”. (W.Heisenberg)
Are they not, then, oscillating from one reality to another and purifying themselves to show gratitude to their Lord and to hymn His praise?
Thus are the overwhelming meanings of this single name of the Grand Majesty of this universe and many other universes that persuade us to ever more, fall in love with the Inconceivable, the All-Encompassing.