Monday, January 17, 2022

Five cornerstones

I recently received another batch of emails from a correspondent who keeps encountering repetitions of the number 5 (55, 555, etc.). This made me think of the Five Pillars of Islam, one of which is praying five times a day. Looking this up led to the discovery that, despite the universal translation pillars, the literal meaning of the first word in the expression arkān al-Islām is "corners" or "cornerstones." Well, one can see why the translation has been fudged! A building can be supported by any number of pillars, but cornerstones by their very nature come in sets of four, not five. What kind of structure would have five cornerstones? A pentagonal one -- or a pyramid.

I decided the pyramid was the best way of conceptualizing the Five Cornerstones of Islam: four on the ground, with the fifth -- or, rather, the first, "There is no God but Allah, and Muhammad is his Prophet" -- at the apex. I wondered, though, if the Benben stone at the top of a pyramid could really properly be called a cornerstone.

Since I've been on a Tarot kick recently (oh, there's a new post up about the Visconti-Sforza Emperor cards), I also of course noticed the coincidental similarity of arkān, "cornerstones," to the Tarot term arcana, "secrets, mysteries." I realized that the Tarot also has a five-fold structure, with the four Minor Arcana suits (derived from cards used by the Muslim Mamluks) corresponding to the four lower cornerstones of the pyramid, and the Major Arcana to to the capstone.

I have been slowly reading Fundamental Symbols, a collection of René Guénon essays translated into English. Just a day after looking up the Five Pillars of Islam and having the thoughts described above, I turned the page in this book and found that the next essay was called "The Cornerstone." Guénon takes the text "The stone which the builders rejected is become the head of the corner" (Ps. 118:22, Matt. 21:42, Mark 12:10, Luke 20:17, Acts 4:11, 1 Pet. 2:7) and notes how strange the usual interpretation of it is. If we take "cornerstone" in its usual sense, as one of the four stones placed at the corners of the foundation, then there is no one unique "head of the corner" corresponding to Christ. Furthermore, the foundational cornerstones are the very first stones laid in the construction process, so how could any of them first be rejected by the builders only later to be incorporated into the building after all? Guénon makes a very strong case that Christ is actually being compared to the keystone, placed at the apex ("corner") of a domed building. This is initially rejected by the builders because it is not square in shape and is thus not suitable for use in the rectilinear lower part of the building. This very shape which caused it to be rejected at first, though, makes it uniquely suitable for use as a capstone. The parallel to my own thoughts about the Shahada as the capstone of Islam is obvious.

As I read further in this essay (I still haven't finished it), I was amazed to find this additional parallel to my thoughts of the day before:

We find other interesting information in the meanings of the Arabic word rukn, 'angle' or 'corner'. This word, because it designates the extremities of a thing, that is, its most remote and hence most hidden parts (recondita and abscondita as one might say in Latin), sometimes takes a sense of 'secret' or of 'mystery'; and in this respect, its plural, arkān, is comparable to the Latin arcanum which likewise has this same sense, and which it strikingly resembles; moreover, in the language of the Hermeticists at least, the use of the term 'arcane' was certainly influenced by the Arabic word in question.

Do the five arkān of Islam, then, correspond to the arcana of the Tarot? Most of the mappings are surprisingly straightforward. I have already said that the Major Arcana correspond to the capstone and thus to the Shahada. Of the four suits of the Minor Arcana, Coins obviously maps to almsgiving, Cups to fasting, and Wands (the pilgrim's staff) to the hajj. That leaves Swords and prayer, which are not obviously related. However, I remembered that earlier in the Guénon book I have been reading, there was an essay on "The Sword of Islam," so I went back and skimmed that. Guénon mentions that the khatīb -- the person who delivers a sermon during Friday prayers -- traditionally holds a sword in his hands. "The sword of the khatīb," he writes, "symbolizes  above all the power of the word, as should be obvious to anyone."

1 comment:

Wm Jas Tychonievich said...

I’ve read the rest of the “Cornerstone” essay, and Guénon even explicitly mentions the “pyramidion” (Benben stone).

White sands, red sun

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