Some religious symbols are so limited in their geographical scope that people of the same religion outside of local society are completely unaware of their use and meaning. This is mostly true for religions covering vast expanses of this world, comprising of several different cultures, languages and identities. One of such symbols is the number 786 (٧٨٦), used popularly among the Muslims of the Indian Subcontinent, specifically Pakistan and India. To Muslims outside of the Subcontinent, it may come as completely meaningless, but it’s quite a big deal in Desi Muslim society.
The number 786 is in fact a numeric code representing the Islamic expression Bismillāh al-Raḥmān al-Raḥīm (In the Name of God, the Most Gracious, the Most Merciful), a formula known among Muslims as the basmala. The origin of this symbolic number actually hides in the complex history of the Arabic script’s development, more specifically the sequence of the Arabic script’s letters. In our modern day and age and the standard Arabic-world educational system, the Arabic alphabet is organized by grouping together letters of similar sound, form and shape. This system is called the hijāʾī order (…,أ، ب، ت، ث، ج) and is the standard alphabetical order of the Arabic language. Traditionally, however, a sequence called abjadī was used, the abjadī order being considered the natural and historical continuation of earlier Semitic alphabetical orders, more specifically Phoenician and Hebrew (…,أ، ب، ج، د، ه). Despite being completely overshadowed by the hijāʾī sequence, this much older order is still quite popular in specialized educational and religious settings.
The abjadī order goes as follows:
Alif (ʾ), bā (b), jīm (j), dāl (d), hāʾ (h), wāw (w), zāy (z), ḥāʾ (ḥ), ṭāʾ (ṭ), yāʾ (y), kāf (k), lām (l), mīm (m), nūn (n), sīn (s), ʿayn (ʿ), fāʾ (f), ṣād (ṣ), qāf (q), rāʾ (r), shīn (sh), tāʾ (t), thāʾ (th), khāʾ (kh), dāl (d), ḍād (ḍ), ẓāʾ (ẓ) and ghayn (gh). For educational purposed, this sequence is vocalized as: ʾabjad hawaz ḥuṭī kalaman saʿfaṣ qarashat thakhadh ḍaẓagh.
However, before the introduction of the Hindu–Arabic numeral system we now use today, users of the Arabic language had to assign a numerical value to each letter, much like the Romans before them.
When we end up counting the numerical values of each letter of Bismillāh al-Raḥmān al-Raḥīm, we eventually get the number 786.
This means that the number 786 represents the Islamic basmala in abjadī numeric code. The number 786 is therefore used in Subcontinental Muslim society in writings, as stickers, as graffiti and even as tattoos to invoke blessings and protection. Indeed, the basmala in Islam forms an important part of every Muslim‘s life, and is generally formulated when carrying something out, performing an action or intending to do so, using the remembrance of God to keep evil away and bless the action at hand. Before eating, before intercourse, to introduce a letter, to start a speech, before sleeping and so on. Muslims using the number 786 consider it a lucky number, a go-to code when evoking the remembrance of God. This “Golden Number” (as it is also called) is to little surprise subject of popular superstition, much to the dismay of many local Muslim clergymen who consider it a religious innovation.
Banknotes contained the number 786 are sold off on eBay as lucky charms, and forged copper coins said to be Half-Anna coins of British Indian origin containing the number 786 have appeared on auction and used goods websites. In reality, no currency has featured the number 786 on either its coins and banknotes. Despite the number appearing popularly on the backs of cars, on letters, as stickers and as graffiti, the most well-known user of the number is Radio 786, a community talk radio station broadcasting to the Greater Cape Town Metropole Area in the Western Cape, South Africa, and home to many immigrants of Malay and Subcontinental origin. The station as established in 1994 and has since won several awards.
Omer Sayadi (*1993) is a former student of the Catholic University of Leuven with a special love for the Middle East and North Africa. After receiving his Master’s degree in Arabic Language and Islamic Studies, he’s working with both refugees from the region as well as foreigners seeking to learn the Dutch language. He wrote columns on Islam in Europe and migration, and started MENA Symbolism as a means of combining everything history, politics, symbolism and society in one place.