Ba- Dal- Laam. Tinker with these Arabic triliteral roots and it will reveal many secrets. Those who believe language is a construct of the mind must look at Ba-Da-La; no human mind can conceive such mathematical order in such a complex language that organically sprang out of the bedouin as he recited poetry to urge his camel to move on. Ba-Da-La can both veil and unveil, deceive or reveal the truth. In terms of verbs it denotes exertion, substitution, exchanging and curiously, to prostitute. In terms of nouns it can be a suit, an allowance or it can refer to a person, a badal the plural being Abdal.

In Damascus these Abdals are simply known as the Arba’een or the forty. In fact a whole mountain has been named in their honour, Jebel Arba’een. Of course, there has always been a great debate as to who they were in the past and who they are now. As I explain to my students, these Abdals are mentioned in some narrations of the Prophet. In Sufi lore they are walking saints who hold up the very framework of the universe with their prayers and service to God. They are entrusted with some of the gifts of their predecessors, the Prophets, and they continue their work still. Sufi lore will of course go into greater depth and explain that sometimes the Badal will not even know whether he or she is one. Many of these Abdals are chosen from three hundred of the best or as they are known Akhyar, (which comes from the same root that denotes goodness). Once a badal dies he is replaced by another which makes sense since as we have said, badal also has connotations of ‘replacing’.

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