x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

A celebration 40 years in the making, and digits worthy of the honour

As the UAE prepares to mark its 40th birthday, a psychology professor examines the cultural significance of the number 40.

Roughly 40 years ago, seven emirates became one nation. This week marks the 40th anniversary of the birth of the United Arab Emirates. This year's celebrations are set to eclipse everything that has gone before them.

In the cold light of rationality, I find myself questioning why 40 should be viewed as such a significant milestone. What's the big deal about 40? Why not 30, or 38? But it seems there are certain numbers mankind has decided to imbue with special symbolic status. These "special numbers" cross cultures, and have featured prominently in our lives for millennia.

Take, for example, the number one; synonymous with purity, unity and monotheism. And so significant is the number two that some languages, Arabic included, even have a dual-form alongside regular old singular and plural. For example, in Arabic jareeda means "newspaper", jareedatan means "two newspapers", and jaraaid is "newspapers".

The number three, of course, is everywhere: three wishes, three witches and three-headed monsters; mythology and folklore are replete with trios. Similar status can easily be awarded to four, five, seven, and 12 too.

But 40. Why is 40 so significant? Generally, the symbolic significance of 40 involves duration of time, rather than a frequency count of entities. For example, the English word quarantine comes from the Latin "quadraginta", which reflects the Roman practice of waiting 40 days before unloading a ship suspected of harbouring a contagious disease.

Consider also the many scriptural references to 40. The great flood, where it rained for 40 days and 40 nights. Moses' 40 day sojourn at Mount Sinai, before leading his people through the desert for 40 years. Jesus' 40 day fast in the wilderness, from which the 40 days of Lent are derived. Within the Islamic tradition, the Prophet Mohammed is said to have been 40 when he first received divine revelation.

Consider also the various customs and traditions from around the globe involving 40 days as a significant duration. In some communities newborns are only named 40 days after birth. In others, new mothers observe a strict 40 day postnatal convalescence period. At the other end of life, many cultures prescribe a 40 day mourning period for widows, and some even suggest it takes the deceased's soul 40 days to leave the Earthly realm.

So infused is Arab and Islamic culture with the number 40, that a whole literary style grew up around the number, with 40 often being used as an organising principle for scholarly works, for example, the classic Forty Hadith of Imam Nawawi. In my own field, psychology, the 11th century polymath Abu Hamid Al Ghazali in Breaking of the Two Desires, suggests it is the 40th day of abstinence that marks a significant breakthrough in combating addictions and bad habits.

Looking closely at the significance of 40 in these various contexts, a common theme begins to emerge. Throughout these traditions, myths and world religions, the symbolism of 40 seems to reflect an end-point of some particularly significant trial or hardship, a developmental milestone. Basically, if you survive 40 days, weeks, months, or years you're ready to proceed to the next level, to the next significant stage in your mission.

The UAE is approaching its 40th anniversary, and whatever the symbolism, the UAE has overcome all the trials and tribulations of the last four decades and has emerged onto the world stage as an example of moderation, flexible adaptability and cultural self-confidence.

Whatever the future holds for the UAE, I'm sure this fully-fledged nation is now strong enough to take it in stride. As an expatriate who has enjoyed the kindness, gentleness and generosity of this nation's great people, I sincerely wish the UAE a happy 40th national day, and many more to come.


Justin Thomas is a psychology professor at Zayed University