The Background and Centrality of Apophatic Theology in Bābī-Bahā'ī Scripture.

Stephen N. Lambden UC Merced.

First published in Revisioning the Sacred: New Perspectives on a Bahá'í Theology, Studies in the Babi and Baha'i Religions vol. 8, pages 37-78, Los Angeles: Kalimat Press, 1997

The Background and Centrality of Apophatic Theology in Bābī-Bahā'ī Scripture. 2nd Web. edition. [1]      

Revised, Updated and Expanded ongoing edition... Last partially corrected and updated : 26-04-2015

 "God (ḥaqq) in His Essence (bi-dhātihi) and in His Own Self (bi-nafsihi) hath ever been unseen, inaccessible and unknowable." (Bahā'u'llāh, ESW:139 trans. 118)

"Immeasurably exalted is His Essence above the descriptions of His creatures... The birds of men's hearts, however high they soar, can never hope to attain the heights of His unknowable Essence... Far be it from His glory that human pen or tongue should hint at His mystery, or that human heart conceive His Essence" (Bahā'u'llāh, Tablet to Hashim. GWB XCIV: 192)

The following monograph will attempt to trace aspects of the history of the theological position of the incomprehensibility-unknowability of God in past major Abrahamic religions and to highlight its importance and significance for contemporary Bahā'īs. Born out of a concern with the ultimate Godhead/ Reality /Truth, the roots of the idea of the unknowable God are disputed. It is likely that the idea has both eastern and western roots; multifaceted interrelated origins in, for example, Greek philosophical sources (e.g. Plato, Parmenides, 137cff), Hellenistic Judaism and Gnostic mythologies as well as the writings of the Christian apologists and Fathers -- not to forget the importance of the sometimes related dimensions of the via negativa ("negative way") in Asian religious (Hindu and Buddhist, etc) sources. [2] 

In his Kitāb-i Īqān (“Book of Certitude”) (c. 1862 CE) Baha’u’llāh clearly acknowledges the past realization of the incomprehensibility of the Ultimate Realty of the Godhead :

“All the Prophets (anbiyā’) of God and their chosen Ones (awsiyā’), all the divines (`ulamā’), the sages (`urafā’), and the wise of every generation (ḥukamā’), unanimously recognize their inability to attain unto the comprehension of that Quintessence of all truth (jawhar al-jawāhir), and confess their incapacity to grasp Him, Who is the inmost Reality of all things (ḥaqīqat al-ḥaqā’iq). (Baha'u'llah, The Kitab-i-Iqan, p. 98)

It will, I hope, become absolutely clear that the Bahā’ī position, far from being new or unique in all its aspects, is rooted in the propositions of past religious and philosophical thinkers. The Bahā’ī via negativa (`way of unknowing, incomprehensibility’) is most directly rooted in Bābī theology and in related Islāmic, Shī`ī and Shaykhī texts and traditions which have apophatic ("negative") theological dimensions. [3]

Any student of the Bābī and Bahā'ī religions will readily come to realize that the doctrine of the unknowability of the ultimate Godhead is foundational. One can only say what God is not or use negative (apophatic) theological language. The incomprehensibility of the nature of the Ultimate Divine Essence (dhāt; dhāt al-dhāt) is, in one way or another, frequently celebrated in Bābi and Bahā’ī Scripture,  the extensive Arabic and Persian writings of Sayyid `Ali Muhammad Shirazi, the Bāb (1819-1850) and Mirzā Ḥusayn `Alī Nūrī Bahā'-Allāh (1817-1892), the founders of the closely related Bābī and Bahā’ī religions respectively. In their writings apophatic ("negative") language is quite frequent if not omnipresent. No Bahā’ī systematic theology could be written without locating the ultimate Divinity beyond the infinite cosmos and totally beyond human knowledge.

Any Bahā'ī theology would, however, identify the maẓhar-i ilāhī  (Manifestation of God) [4]  as the locus of His necessarily  indirect though universal "knowability". While the Divine Essence is the centre of a negative (apophatic) theology, the person of the Manifestation of God, who is born from age to age to communicate the Divine Will to humankind, is the centre of a positive, an affirmative (cataphatic) theology expressive of the nearness and knowability of God. It is by virtue of this that the Divine immanence is realized without incarnation but through the perfect manifestation of the divine Names and Attributes in nature, humanity and in the loving Fatherhood of the successive Manifestations or Messengers of God.

The Bābī-Bahā’ī doctrine of the unknowability of God is not a "bloodless abstraction" (a phrase of Louis Jacobs, 1967:4) but rather one which points to and celebrates the truth of the fact that through His Messengers God is "closer to humanity" than their, "jugular vein" (Q.50:16b; see below). By virtue of the Manifestation of God, the divine "image" is deep within the soul of every individual though the Absolute Deity ever remains outside of the human universe of discourse.


           אָכֵ֕ן אַתָּ֖ה אֵ֣ל מִסְתַּתֵּ֑ר אֱלֹהֵ֥י יִשְׂרָאֵ֖ל מֹושִֽׁיעַ

"Truly, thou art a God who hidest thyself, O God of Israel, the Saviour" (Isaiah 45:15).

 The Hebrew Bible does not contain a systematic theology (doctrine of God), theogony (God’s generative Power) or theodicy (God’s relationship with his creation). It champions the oneness and supremacy of the inconceivable yet personal, universal God of Israel who has various Names or designations in the Hebrew Bible; including, (Heb.)  `Eloha (God cf. Allāh), `Elohim (God[s]”), YHWH (= loosely, Yahweh), etc :

כִּ֚י יְהוָ֣ה אֱלֹֽהֵיכֶ֔ם ה֚וּא אֱלֹהֵ֣י הָֽאֱלֹהִ֔ים וַאֲדֹנֵ֖י הָאֲדֹנִ֑ים הָאֵ֨ל הַגָּדֹ֤ל הַגִּבֹּר֙ וְהַנֹּורָ֔א

 “For YHWH your Elohim (God) is Elohai of the Elohim (“The God of Gods”) and the Adonai of the Adonim (“Lord of Lords”), a Great. Almighty El (God)” (Deut. 10:17).

Though hardly directly spelled out in the Hebrew Bible the belief that the nature or essence of God is unfathomable came to be important in Jewish religious thought. Implying that God is incomparable, Isaiah posed the rhetorical question: "To whom then will you liken God, or what likeness compare with him." (40:18). Indeed, no likeness can be made of the invisible God of Israel (Exodus 20:4) who created the heavens and the earth (Genesis 1f). The absence of images of God in the ancient Israelite cultus has been reckoned a "most striking feature" (Ringgren, 1966:39; Freedman, 2005). In referring to the God of Israel as One supremely, One thrice "holy" (Heb. qadosh), the implication is that He is One distinctly "set apart" (see the trisagion, Isaiah 6:3 etc):

וְאָמַ֔ר קָדֹ֧ושׁ׀ קָדֹ֛ושׁ קָדֹ֖ושׁ יְהוָ֣ה צְבָאֹ֑ות מְלֹ֥א כָל־הָאָ֖רֶץ כְּבֹודֹֽו

And one [of the Seraphim] said to the other, “Holy (qadosh), Holy (qadosh), Holy (qadosh) [Sanctified, Sanctified, Sanctified] is the Lord of Hosts. His Glory (kabod) fills all the earth.” [6]

The threefold repetition of the Hebrew qadosh (Ar. quddūs) by one of the angelic Seraphim (“burning ones”)in this verse of the book of Isaiah underlines the transcendent  Holiness, Sanctity or Abstractness of the God of Israel or Lord of Hosts  (YHWH Sebaoth).

 Direct vision of this transcendent God Who dwells in "thick darkness" (Heb. הָֽעֲרָפֶ֔ל  = ha-`araphel, Exod 20:21; I Kings 8:12) [7] is denied Moses and other human beings (Exod 33:20; Jud. 13:22): "The Lord reigns.. Clouds and thick darkness are round about him.." (Psalm 97:2). It has sometimes been reckoned that the mysterious hiddenness of this Self-Existent God is reflected in His terse Self-designation אֶֽהְיֶ֖ה אֲשֶׁ֣ר אֶֽהְיֶ֑ה (RSV. loose trans.) "I AM WHO I AM" (Heb. `ehyeh `asher `ehyeh, Exod. 3:14).

 During the second Temple period  (6th Cent. BCE  ->1st Cent. CE) reverence for the transcendent God of Israel was greatly underlined. Biblical anthropomorphisms were often avoided or reinterpreted non-literally. Both the writing and the uttering of His personal Divine name, later called the tetragrammaton (“four-lettered”), יהוה = YHWH (loosely "Yahweh") came to be strictly outlawed. In later times, it may be noted here, this supreme Name was sometimes indirectly pronounced by its consonantal association with the vowels of the Divine Name אֲדֹנָי 'Adonai ( = "Lord"); hence the hybrid, bowdlerized and non-biblical from יְהֹוָה. (“Jehovah”). The Qumran Jewish faction, most probably the so-called Essenes, who revered and preserved many of the so-called `Dead Sea Scrolls', at some stage observed a Community Rule (Serek ha-yaḥad, 1QS. c.100 BCE?) in which the following rather extreme guideline is contained:

"If any man has uttered the [Most] Venerable Name even though frivolously, or as a result of shock or for any other reason whatever, while reading the Book or praying, he shall be dismissed and shall return to the Council of the Community no more." (trans., Vermes, The Dead Sea Scrolls, n. d.: 70).

Certain Jewish thinkers and various Christian Biblical exegetes have found scores of hints of God's unknowability in the Hebrew Bible. In for example, the mention of the fact that Moses "drew near to the thick darkness where God was" (Exod. 20:21b) and that he was refused direct vision of God's "face" (Exod 33:18f). In his A Jewish Theology, Jacobs states that in the history of Jewish religious thought there is, "a definite tendency among some thinkers to negate all attributes from God. He is to be described, if He is to be described at all, as unknowable." (1973: 38)

Philo of Alexandria (Judaeus c. 20 BCE - c. 50 CE)

 The Jewish philosopher and scriptural exegete Philo of Alexandria (Judaeus c. 20 BCE - c. 50 CE), "has some claim to be called the Father of negative theology" (Louth, 1981:19). In his allegorical interpretation of the Greek Septuagint (= a Greek version of the Hebrew Bible) he often had reason to underline the supreme transcendence and unknowability of the ultimate God of Israel, `the Existent' (Gk. to on cf. Plato Timaeus 27Df). God is "unknowable" (Gk. akataleptos; see De. Som. I:67; De Mut. nom. 10; De post. Caini, 169, etc). Human beings can grasp the truth of the existence of God but not the nature of His exalted, unknowable Being:

"Do not… suppose that the Existent that truly exists is apprehended by any man... why should we wonder that the Existent cannot be apprehended by men when even the mind in each of us is unknown to us?" (Mut. II:7, 10).

 The argument that the incomprehensibility of God’s Essence is highlighted by the fact that human beings cannot even fathom the nature of their own being, the human self, mind or soul became widespread. It is an argument repeated in one way or another for many centuries, in, for example, both Islamic and Bābī-Bahā’ī scriptural traditions and related philosophical and religious sources.  

 Commenting on "And the Glory of the Lord came down upon Sinai" (Exodus 24:16a), Philo rejects a literal reading. He denies "movements of place or change in the Deity". It is the "Glory of God" which descended not the "essence of God". For Philo it is fitting that "Sinai" signifies something "inaccessible" for "the divine place is truly inaccessible and unapproachable, for not even the holiest mind is able to ascend such a height to it so as merely to approach and touch it." (Qu. Ex. II:45; see also Opif, 71 and Abr 74-6). [8]

 The late Harvard Professor of Hebrew Literature and Philosophy Harry Austryn Wolfson (1887-1974) entitled a lengthy chapter of his Philo: Foundations of Religious Philosophy in Judaism, Christianity and Islam, `The unknowability of God and Divine Predicates' (II: 94ff). Therein he wrote,

       "One of the most familiar facts about Philo is that to him God was the Absolute, a single and unique Being beyond even the Monad and the number One, as well as beyond the Good and all other categories." In sketching the Philonic doctrine of the unknowability of God he noted Philo's going beyond Plato and Aristotle by holding that "it is wholly impossible that God according to His essence, should be known by any creature" (Post. C 48:168) for as One "unnamable" and "ineffable" He is "not comprehended by the mind" (Immut. 13:16) (Wolfson II: 111).

For Philo, God is indirectly knowable through His powers (dynameis), through,  for example, the intermediaries of "Logos", "Idea" and "Angel". While he gave great weight to the ultimate unknowability of God, his ontology and anthropology neither rule out the human ecstatic mystical experience of the Godhead nor the vision of His blinding Light (Opif. 71; Abr. 74-6). [9]

Rabbinic Literatures and Medieval Jewish Thought

The largely occasional Rabbinic perspectives extant in the Midrashic and Talmudic literatures (1st BCE -> 6th cent. CE) contain relatively little precise theological speculation. A few references which approach a `theology of negation' have been registered by Louis Jacobs. He noted, for example, that the Palestinian teacher R. Abin said: `When Jacob of the village of Neboria was in Tyre, he interpreted the verse, "For Thee, silence is praise, O God" (Psalm 65:2) to mean that silence is the ultimate praise of God' (Jacobs, A Jewish Theology, 1973: 47-8).

Influenced by Neo-Platonism, the medieval Jewish philosophers generally held to a negative theology. They held the belief that God transcends all human knowledge and experience. In discussing the significance of the unity of God in his The Book of Direction to the Duties of the Heart, Baḥya ibn Pakudah (c. 1050-c.1156 CE) propounds such a negative theology. Human beings should negate from God all human and finite limitations and hold that He is unknowable or beyond human comprehension: "The essence of your knowledge of Him, O my brother, is your firm admission that you are completely ignorant of His true essence." (Ibn Pakuda, 1973:143, cf. Jacobs, 1973:39f).

Moseh ben Maimon, Maimonides (c. 1135-1204)

 The great Spanish Jewish philosopher Maimonides (Moseh ben Maimon, c. 1135-1204) in his renowned Guide for the Perplexed  dwelt at length on aspects of a negative theology of the nature or essence of God. For him talk about attributes of the divine nature was tantamount to polytheism. Even negative attributes cannot be befittingly predicated of God:

"In the contemplation of His essence, our comprehension and knowledge prove insufficient; in the examination of His works, how they necessarily result from His will, our knowledge proved to be ignorance, and in the endeavour to extol Him in words, all our efforts in speech are mere weakness and failure." (Guide LVIII, Maimonides, 1956: 83).

Medieval and later Kabbalistic Thought

The ancient Jewish Kabbalistic tradition (partly rooted in antiquity) on the other hand, upholds an esoteric theology in which the Ultimate Godhead is the unknowable and incomprehensible En Sof ("without limit"). The Infinite without name and beyond attribute is one with, though beyond, the emanated ten Sefirot ("Spheres") which are His instruments in the seen and unseen cosmos. Writing about God in the Kabbalah Gershom Scholem has stated,

"From the sayings of some early kabbalists, it is apparent that they are careful not even to ascribe personality to God. Since He is beyond everything -- beyond even imagination, thought, or will -- nothing can be said of him that is within the grasp of our thought"  (Scholem, 1972: 661).

While the doctrine of the incomprehensibility of God is not exactly central to mainstream Judaism, key medieval and other Jewish thinkers have subscribed to an apophatic theology. A theology of the incomprehensibility of God has been voiced and argued by miscellaneous Jewish thinkers and philosophers for well over two millennia.


As with the Hebrew Bible and Rabbinic literatures, the New Testament does not contain a systematic doctrine of God (Gk. theos; kyrios = `Lord'); therein there is neither a use of the word trinity nor a sustained deification of Jesus of Nazareth (d. c. 33CE). Jesus Christ frequently spoke intimately of the God of the Hebrew Bible as the divine "Father" (Aram.  אבא = Gk.  Αββα = `Abba; see Mark 14:36) though His transcendence was not compromised.

 For various Christian writers and scholars certain Pauline and pseudo-Pauline writings seem to uphold the divine transcendence (e.g. 1 Cor. 15:28c; 1Tim. 6:16). [10]  Worth noting here is the 4th cent CE. Gregory of Nyssa’s (see below) interpretations of key Pauline texts in his Commentary on the Song of Songs where he

 “emphasizes the apophatic context in which Paul finds himself (2 Cor. 12:4). Paul has been initiated into the ineffable (a’porrZta) where paradoxically he heard words that could not be pronounced (a’lalZtvn ‘rZmatvn). If this is true of Paul, then any understanding of God remains unutterable (a’nekfrasta)” [11]

The fourth Gospel of John records that God cannot be visioned for "No one has ever seen God" (John 1:18a). Christ the "Son" as a Divine figure or manifestation, however, has indirectly "made him [God the Father] known" (Jn 1:18b cf. Jn 6:46).

 From the early second century CE occasional and then numerous Christian writers in one way or another held to a negative theology. The "incomprehensibility" of God came to be widely affirmed. The partially preserved Greek apocryphal Kerygma Petrou (`Preaching of Peter’, Egypt c. 110 CE?) - which is known only from citations in such Christian writers as Clement of Alexandria (d. C. 215 CE) and Origen (d. 254 CE) - contains one of the earliest explicit Christian references to God being "incomprehensible": [12]

Οτι δε ου κατ επιγνωσιν ισασι τον θεον, αλλα κατα περιφασιν, Ελληνων οι δοκιμωτατοι, Πετρος εν τω κηρυγματι λεγει· Γινωσκετε ουν οτι εις θεος εστιν, ος αρχην παντων εποιησεν, και τελους εξουσιαν εχων· και ο αορατος, ος τα παντα ορα, αχωρητος, ος τα παντα χωρει, ανεπιδεης, ου τα παντα επιδεεται, και δι ον εστιν· ακαταληπτος, αεννατος, αφθαρτος, αποιητος, ος τα παντα εποιησεν λογω δυναμεως αυτου, της γνωστικης γραφης, τουτεστι του υιου.

“Know then that there is one God who made the beginning of all things and has power over their end, and: The invisible who sees all things, uncontainable, who contains all, having need of nothing, of whom all things stand in need and for whose sake they exist, ακαταληπτος (akataleptos = “incomprehensible”), perpetual, incorruptible, uncreated, who made all things by the word of his power, that is, the Son” (Kerygma Petrou cited Clement of Alexandia, Stromateis [Miscellanies] VI. 5). [13]

 Many early and later Christian and non-Christian gnostic groups viewed the Ultimate Godhead as One Unknown, Unknowable. He is the `Wholly Other' not responsible for this material sphere of darkness. Such is the basic theodicy of many gnostic groups (Zandee 1964: 21). Presenting itself as a revelation of "the mysteries" by Jesus the Saviour to John Son of Zebedee, The Apocryphon of John , for example opens with an extended negative theology (see Robinson, 1984:99ff). The early gnostic theologia negativa has been thought to be "an anticipation of the speculations of the Church Fathers, especially of the mystics among them" (Quispel 1955: 57).

Due to limitations of space, full details of the numerous testimonies to the incomprehensibility and unknowability of God in the early Christian centuries cannot possibly be registered here. What follows is consequently only a highly selective set of notes. Along with other Abrahamic religious traditions, the Christian doctrine of the incomprehensibility, unknowability of God is closely associated with and sometimes rooted in various eclectic forms of Middle and emergent Neo-Platonic philosophy. It was in part due to this influence that a negative definition of God "appears occasionally and Incidentally among the apostolic fathers ... and is a significant feature among the apologists." Like Philo, various early ChnstIan apologIsts use such negative theological epithets as "uncreated," "uncontained," "unnameable."   By doing so, they underlined the transcendence of Almighty God.

 For some early Christian thinkers this intellectual heritage was welcomed. Socrates (469–399 BCE.), and Plato (424/3–347), for example, were seen by certain Alexandrian apologists and later Christian thinkers, as subject to divine inspiration through the spermata tou logou (`seed of the Logos’) or `The Word’,  ὁ λογος (ho logos) which is the logos spermatikos, (The Seminal-Germinal or `Seed-bearing Word’). Through this was expressed the pre-Christian divinely guided operations of the Holy Spirit of Christ. Thus some inspired speculations in embryonic form were attributed to a range of  Greek philosophers believed to have been inspired by God before Jesus in order to prepare minds for the receipt of the Gospel and associated wisdom.

Justin Martyr (c.100-165 CE) was perhaps the most important second century apologist. He states that God the Father is "Nameless" and "Unbegotten" and adds, "The name Christ… contains an unknown significance, just as the title `God' is not a name, but represents the idea, innate in human nature, of an inexpressible reality" (Apologia II.5 cited Bettenson, 1969:63). Christ the "Logos" is a subordinate Deity distinguished from the Ultimate, Unknowable Godhead. He is a "visible God" -- "God" born from "God"-- like Fire lit from another Fire or Light radiating from the Sun (Dial. 128).

In the late 170s CE Athenagoras of Athens in his Presbeia ("Supplication") refers to "the One God" as "incomprehensible" (Suppl. 10.1 cited Prestige, 1952:3). Theophilus bishop of Antioch (late 2nd c. CE) in his Ad Autoclycum ("To Autolycus") declared, "The form of God ineffable… in glory He is uncontainable, in greatness incomprehensible, in height inconceivable" (ad. Aut. I.3; cited Prestige ibid).

The famed author of the anti-gnostic Against the Heresies (Adversus haeresus), Irenaeus bishop of Lyons (fl. c.115-190 CE) spoke of Christ the Logos as the Mediator of revelation. The Son (Jesus) safeguarded the invisibility of the Father (God)" for the invisible, incomprehensible God "in his true nature and immensity cannot be discovered or described by his creatures" (Adv. Haer. IV.20.6 cited Bettenson, 1969:74).

Brought up in Carthage the, the African theologian Tertullian (160-220) wrote a large number of polemical treatises. He often refers to God as invisible and incomprehensible. In his early Apologeticum (c.197 CE) he refers to God as "Invisible, though he is seen, incomprehensible, though manifested by grace" (Apol. 17 cited Bettenson, 1969:103).

Clement of Alexandria (c.150-c. 215 CE) reckoned God both One and beyond Oneness, a transcendent Deity that human thoughts can never match. He reckoned Moses a true Gnostic (gnostikos) since he did not attempt to "encompass" the transcendent God Who "cannot be encompassed"; not setting up any representative "statue" of Him in the "sanctuary" (the Holy Place / Holy of Holies, at the centre of the Tabernacle or Jerusalem Temple), "thus making it clear that God is a mystery, invisible and illimitable" (Strom V 11:74.4 cited Daniélou, 1973:326). Like Philo, Clement and other apologists -- including Theophilus of Antioch (d.c.180 CE; refer Ad. Autolycum I,3) and Athenagoras (2nd cent. CE; see Supl. 10) -- specifically refer to God as One "unknowable" (Gk. akataleptos; Clement, Strom V.12. 82 etc cf. above).

Origen (c.185-c. 254 CE)

 Son of a Christian martyr the erudite Origen (c.185-c. 254 CE), in some respects the most prolific and learned of the fathers of the Church, in his De Principiis ("On First Principles") and other works propounds a primarily negative theology. He asserts that without doubt God is "incomprehensible and immeasurable", beyond the grasp of the human mind (De Prin. I.1.5). God comprehends all things but is comprehended by none among His creatures. Human minds cannot behold God as He is in Himself (ibid IV.4.8; I.1.5f).

Neo-Platonic philosophy and the Christian Fathers.

Plotinus (205-270 CE; the founder of Neoplatonism) settled in Rome around 245 CE and subsequently composed his fifty-four treatises known, after their grouping by his disciple Porphry (d.304 CE) as the Enneads (`Nines' 6 x 9 = 54). He was an important source of negative and mystical theology (Clark, 1987: 368) for it was "he who raised the concept to philosophical respectability" (Walker, 1974:9). Among his teachings is that the Divine exists in a "Triad" of three entitles (hypostases) the highest degree of which, the `One' transcends Psyche ("Soul") and Nous ("Intellect"), is Unknowable, beyond human thoughts, essence, existence and oneness (Ennead V. 3.13; 5.6, etc). It can only be inadequately described negatively.

 Plotinus' work directly or indirectly through such of his followers as the anti- Christian Porphyry (232-305 CE), Iambilicus (c.245-326 CE) and Proclus (c. 412-485), influenced both the Church Fathers and emergent Islamic philosophy (see Baine Harris, 1976:1ff). It has already been noted that it was partly under the influence of Neo-Platonic philosophy (which championed the transcendence or incomprehensibility of the `Absolute') that many of the Church Fathers voiced a negative theology in which the incomprehensibility of God was seen as of fundamental importance. [14]

 The adoption of consubstantial (homoousios) trinitarianism by more than 300 (largely Eastern) Christian bishops at the Council of Nicea (325 CE) did not prevent most Church Fathers from continuing to champion the Absolute Mystery of the Godhead. The doctrine of the incomprehensibility of God was not eclipsed by either by straightforward or `literalist’ notion of Divine incarnation or by belief in a trinitarianism of "substance" (ousia). Athanasius (c. 296-337 CE) the youthful champion of Nicean orthodoxy and anti-Arianism, in a `Letter to the Monks' (358 CE) stated that "even if it is impossible to grasp what God is, yet it is possible to say what he is not" (cited Hanson, 1970: 448).

 The various major Cappadocian  Christian theologians of the fourth cent.  CE. [15] in different ways spoke about the incomprehensibility of God. Gregory of Nyssa (c.335-395?) for example, regarded the heights of mystical contemplation as the realization of the incomprehensibility of God. His writings  (influenced by Neo-Platonic works) is layed the foundation of a `mysticism of darkness' based upon an exegesis of Moses' Sinaitic ascent (Exodus 24:15ff). It is related to the three stages of 1) being in the "light" (phos) = purification 2) being in the "cloud" (nephele) = contemplation of intelligibles and 3) being in the "darkness" (gnophos; Exod. 20:21) = the termination of knowledge before the ultimate inaccessibility of God and the mystical "ascent" through divine love:

"Moses' vision of God began with light; afterwards God spoke to him in a cloud. But when Moses rose higher and became more perfect he saw God in the darkness" (Comm. on the Song XI: 1000; cited Louth 1981:83)

 Among the many illuminating passages in the writings of Gregory it must suffice to quote a brief extract from his marvelous exegetical treatise On the Life of Moses or On Perfection in Virtue

“What then does it mean that Moses entered the darkness and then saw God in it? [Exod 20:21]... as the mind progresses, through an even greater and more perfect diligence, comes to apprehend reality, as it approaches more nearly to contemplation , it sees more clearly what of the divine nature is uncontemplated. For leaving behind everything that is observed, not only what sense comprehends but also what the intelligence thinks it sees, it keeps on penetrating deeper until by the intelligence's yearning for understanding it gains access to the invisible and the incomprehensible, and there it sees God. This is the true knowledge of what is sought; this is the seeing that consist in not seeing, because that which is sought transcends all knowledge, being separated on all sides by incomprehensibility as by a kind of darkness. Wherefore John the sublime, who penetrated into the luminous darkness, says No one has ever seen God, [John 1:18] thus asserting that knowledge of the divine essence is unattainable not only by men by every intelligent creature.

When therefore, Moses grew in knowledge, he declared that he had seen God in the darkness, that is, that he had then come to know that what is divine is beyond all knowledge and comprehension, for the text says, Moses approached the dark cloud where God was. What God? He who made darkness his hiding place as David says [Psalm 17:12] who was initiated into the mysteries in the same inner sanctuary." (Gregory of Nyssa, 1978: 94-95).

Writing in the Platonic and Alexandrian tradition, the influential bishop and theologian Athanasius (d. 377 CE) in his Letter to the Monks (358 CE) wrote that `even if it is impossible to grasp what God is, yet it is possible to say what He is not" (cited Hanson 1970: 448). He occasionally described God as incomprehensible (Gent. 2.35.40). Referring to Psalm 138:6 and other Biblical texts, Basil of Caesarea (d. 379 CE) warned that it is "presumptuous to claim to know what is God's essence (ousia)." (Turner 1977: 302). A homily on the `Incomprehensible nature of God' is extant from the great orator and one time bishop of Constantinople, John Chrysostom ("golden mouth" c. 354-407 CE) (Graffin, & Malingren, 1972). Though not exactly a proponent of negative theology, the influential Christian theologian Augustine of Hippo (d.430 CE) advised when talking about God, `Put everything from your mind; whatever occurs to you deny it ... say, He is not that." (Enarr. 2 in Ps 26:8; MPL xxxvi, col. 203, cited Turner 1977: 301).

Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite (fl. c. 500 CE., cf. Acts 17:34)

 The writings of the unknown philosopher-monk Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite present a synthesis of Christian doctrines and Neoplatonic thought. Perhaps of Syrian provenance, they are very important texts in the history of Christian mysticism. Lossky reckoned that they "have enjoyed an undisputed authority in the theological tradition of the East, as well as that of the West" (Lossky 1957:24).

 Dionysius was markedly influenced by though he went beyond the abovementioned Gregory of Nyssa. Anthony Meredith writes in his 1999 volume Gregory of Nyssa

“In several important respects Gregory can be seen as the anticipator of Denis the Areopagite, above all in his treatise, The Mystical Theology. Certainly in chapter 1 Denis clearly refers to passages in Gregory’s On the Life of Moses, which touch on the theme of darkness. But, in three respects, Denis goes well beyond his ‘master’, and shows himself to be a disciple rather of Proclus, the Neoplatonist. (1) For Denis, God is frequently stated to be ‘beyond all being’. In the opening of the work On the Divine Names, he writes of ‘that hidden divinity which transcends being’. With such an understanding Gregory’s frequent insistence on God as ‘He who’ or ‘That which is’, (cf. Exod. 3, 14) does not easily accord. (2) For Gregory the sharp distinction between creator and creature is everywhere insisted upon. For Denis, with his teaching of outflow and return of all reality to its divine source and especially with his use of James 1, 17 in The Celestial Hierarchy 1.1 and with his remarks at On the Divine Names 4, 14, the cardinal distinction between creator and creature is blurred almost to the point of pantheism. (3) Denis structures the spiritual life in a quite unGregorian fashion, as the progessive return of the outflow to its source by the purgative, illuminative and unitive way of which he seems to be the first clear exponent. The scheme occurs in The Mystical Theology 1, 3., ‘When every purification is complete… Moses sees the many lights…. Then he breaks free from them, and renouncing all the mind may conceive, is united, by a completely unknowing activity of all knowledge, and knows beyond the mind by knowing nothing.’ The idea of union is peculiar to Denis, though foreign to Gregory.”

 In the opening two chapters at the commencement of his The Divine Names, Dionysius, addresses his fellow presbyter and writes:

“let the rule of the Oracles be here also prescribed for us, viz., that we shall establish the truth of the things spoken concerning God, not in the persuasive words of man's wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit-moved power of the Theologians, by aid of which we are brought into contact with things unutterable and unknown, in a manner unutterable and unknown, in proportion to the superior union of the reasoning and intuitive faculty and operation within us. By no means then is it permitted to speak, or even to think, anything, concerning the superessential and hidden Deity, beyond those things divinely revealed to us in the sacred Oracles. For Agnosia, (supra-knowledge) of its superessentiality above reason and mind and essence----to, it must we attribute the super-essential science, so far aspiring to the Highest, as the ray of the supremely Divine Oracles imparts itself, whilst we restrain ourselves in our approach to the higher glories by prudence and piety as regards things Divine…

For, if we must place any confidence in the All Wise and most trustworthy Theology, things Divine are revealed and contemplated in proportion to the capacity of each of the minds, since the supremely Divine Goodness distributes Divinely its immeasurableness (as that which cannot be contained) with a justice which preserves those whose capacity is limited. For, as things intelligible cannot be comprehended and contemplated by things of sense, and things uncompounded and unformed by things compounded and formed; and the intangible and unshaped formlessness of things without body, by those formed according to the shapes of bodies; in accordance with the self-same analogy of the truth, the superessential Illimitability is placed above things essential, and the Unity above mind above the Minds; and the One above conception is inconceivable to all conceptions; and the Good above word is unutterable by word----Unit making one every unit, and superessential essence and mind inconceivable, and Word unutterable, speechlessness and inconception, and namelessness----being after the manner of no existing being, and Cause of being to all, but Itself not being, as beyond every essence, and as It may manifest Itself properly and scientifically concerning Itself.”

The second section of The Divine Names commences with a clear articulation of the impossibility of contemplating the Essence of God:

“Concerning this then, as has been said, the super-essential and hidden Deity, it is not permitted to speak or even to think beyond the things divinely revealed to us in the sacred Oracles. For even as Itself has taught (as becomes Its goodness) in the Oracles, the science and contemplation of Itself in Its essential Nature is beyond the reach of all created things, as towering superessentially above all. And you will find many of the Theologians, who have celebrated It, not only as invisible and incomprehensible, but also as inscrutable and un-traceable, since there is no trace of those who have penetrated to Its hidden infinitude” [16]

 In his  masterly contribution on `Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite’ of the new edition of The Cambridge History of Philosophy in Late Antiquity  (= Section 42), Eric Perl has a few paragraphs headed `The Hidden God’ and writes :

“In On Divine Names, Dionysius sets out to explain how the unknowable, hidden, nameless’ God is hymned by many names in the Christian Scriptures and traditions. He does this by means of a version of Platonic metaphysics, in which God, who as beyond being is unknowable and unnameable, is hymned by the names of all things because, as cause of all things, he is all things in all things. The idea that God, the first principle of reality, is ‘hidden’, i.e., inaccessible or unknowable, has a widespread background both in classical Greek thought and in the Christian tradition (notably in Clement of Alexandria and Gregory of Nyssa). For Dionysius, God is beyond the reach of thought and knowledge because he is not any being. ‘For if all knowledges are of beings and have their limit in beings, that which is beyond all being also transcends all knowledge’ (DN 1.4.593a). This statement reflects a line of philosophical argumentation stemming principally from Plotinus. The Platonic doctrine that the One or Good, the first principle of reality, is beyond being and knowledge, follows from the fundamental identity of being and intelligibility which is central to this tradition. If to be is to be intelligible, then every being is finite and is dependent on the identifying determination in virtue of which it is intelligible and thus is a being (e.g., Plotinus, 5.1 [10] 7.19–27). Consequently, the first principle cannot be any being. If it were a finite being, it would be intelligible, determinate, dependent, and therefore not the first principle. Moreover, it would be one distinct member of the totality of beings, rather than the source of that totality. Plotinus’ conclusion, then, is that the source from which all things derive is beyond intelligibility and beyond being, and he carefully explains that this ‘beyond’ is purely negative in meaning, signifying only that the One is not anything, not included within the whole of reality as any member of it, precisely because it is the source of that whole (e.g., Plotinus, 5.5 [32] 6.2–14).

Dionysius adopts this line of reasoning from the Platonic tradition, declaring that God is unknowable, unable to be grasped by thought, inexpressible, nameless, above being, not any being. It is not merely the case that God is inexpressible by language, beyond discursive reason, or inaccessible to human thought (as though some ‘other’ kind of thought could reach him). Rather, God is beyond the reach of thought as such, because all thought is, necessarily, the apprehension of being, of what is intelligible, finite and hence not God.

Dionysius’ ‘negative theology’, therefore, like that of Plotinus, does not consist merely in negative propositions about God. Negation, no less than affirmation, is a form of determination, and would limit God by declaring what he is not. Thus Dionysius says not merely that God is beyond all affirmations, but that he is ‘beyond every negation and affirmation’ (MT 1.2.1000b; cf. MT 5.1048b).

It is no more correct to say that God is not anything than to say that he is anything. Likewise, for Dionysius, God is not simply unknowable or ineffable, for this would implicitly identify him as an unknowable or ineffable being and ascribe an attribute to him, but rather beyond ineffability and beyond unknowing (huperarr¯etos, huperagnoston; DN 1.4.592d). Just as Plotinus says that to attain

the One ‘you will not think (ou no¯eseis)’ (5.3 [49] 13.33), so Dionysius says that the union of the mind with God ‘comes about in the cessation of every intellectual activity’ (DN 1.5.593c; cf. DN 1.4.592cd) and ‘in the inactivity of every knowledge’ (MT 1.3.1001a), for every intellectual activity, every knowledge, is the apprehension of some being and therefore not of God. Negative theology ultimately consists not in any speech or thought, however negative or superlative, but in silence, ‘honouring the hidden of the divinity, beyond intellect and being, with unsearchable and sacred reverence of intellect, and ineffable things with a sober silence’ (DN 1.3.589ab). Since to be is to be intelligible, or, in other words, to be given to thought, to be manifest, God is hidden, not manifest, in that he is not any being.

In developing his Platonic understanding of the Christian God, Dionysius  carefully avoids assimilating the persons of the Trinity to the Plotinian hypostases of the One, intellect and soul, or indeed to any of the other triads that abound in later Platonism. For Dionysius, all three persons together, not the Father alone, stand in the place of the Platonic One or Good, beyond intellect and being, and all the names of God, with the exception of the names ‘Father’, ‘Son’, and ‘Holy Spirit’, are common to all three persons (DN 2.1, 636c, 637c; 2.3, 640b). On this point the difference between Dionysius’ and Augustine’s Christian versions of Platonism is instructive. Augustine assimilates the Son or Word, eternally begotten by the Father, to Plotinus’ intellect, eternally generated by the One. But since, for Augustine, the Son is in no way subordinate but fully equal to the Father, God as the Father is God, this has the effect of bringing God down to the level of intellect. Augustine’s God is fundamentally pure intellect, pure form, pure being, and the Platonic idea of the first principle as beyond all these is to a large extent lost. For Dionysius, on the other hand, God – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – is beyond intellect, form and being, in the position of the Platonic One. Thus Dionysius often refers to the Son as huperousios (e.g. Epist. 3.1069b; Epist. 4.1072b), and the opening prayer of the Mystical Theology begins, ‘Trinity beyond being [Trias huperousie] . . .’ (MT 1.1, 997a). Hence the trinitarian distinctions, although discussed in DN 2, do not enter into Dionysius’ philosophical understanding of God as the principle of all things.” (Perl, 768-770)

In his On Mystical Theology Dionysius “describes the ascent to ‘the divine darkness’, towards  the divinity beyond all knowledge and being, by the removal of all things” ( CHECK…

Following Proclus (d. c. 487) Pseudo-Dionysius seems to have the first Christian thinker to have made use of the theological terms `apophatic' ("negative [theology]") and `cataphatic' ("affirmative [theology]"). [17] Subsequently they became familiar terms in Byzantine theology, from the time of the Greek theologians Maximus the Confessor (d.662 CE) and John Damascene (d. c. 749 CE) (see Louth, 1989:87). For Pseudo-Dionysis "the reference of both apophatic and cataphatic theology is the One God… It is of the same God that we are to make both affirmations and denials"  (Louth 1989:87). For him God in Himself is beyond the God we know through cataphatic theology. God is more adequately "known" through apophatic theology, the paradoxical mystical theology of denial or unknowing:

"God is known in all things and apart from all things; and God is known by knowledge and by unknowing. Of him there is understanding, reason, knowledge, touch, perception, opinion, imagination, name and many other things, but he is not understood, nothing can be said of him, he cannot be named. He is not one of the things that are, nor is he known in any of the things that are; he is all things in everything and nothing in anything; he is known to all from all things and to no-one from anything. For we rightly say these things of God,  and he is celebrated by all beings according to the analogy that all things bear to him as their Cause. But the most divine knowledge of God, that in which he is known through unknowing, according to the union that transcends the mind, happens when the mind, turning away from all things, including itself, is united with the dazzling rays, and there and then illuminated in the unsearchable depth of wisdom” (DN VII.3: 872A-B). 

The first chapter of The Mystical Theology poses the question `What is the Divine  darkness' and opens with a beautiful prayer in which the supplicant says,

"Lead us up beyond unknowing and light, up to the farthest, highest peak of mystic scripture, where the mysteries of God's Word lie simple, absolute and unchangeable in the brilliant darkness of a hidden silence" (cited Rorem, 1993:184).

Mystical union with God is only possible in terms of the darkness of "unknowing" (agnāsia). It is never an actual or complete union with the Unnameable God, the transcendent Divinity Who is beyond Being (huperousios). The Dionysian corpus had a major influence upon a range of key Christian thinkers and mystics most of whom made significant theological statements about the incomprehensibility of God.

John of Damascus (d. 749)

 At the end of the Patristic period, John of Damascus (d. 749) taught that positive statements about God do not reveal His nature. Nothing can be said about Him beyond what has been indicated in revelation. In his On the Orthodox Faith (I.4) he states that the existence of God is clear though His nature is incomprehensible: "what He is by His essence and nature, this is altogether beyond our comprehension and knowledge" (PG. 94, 797b cited Ware, 1963:??). The Irish theologian and Neoplatonist philosopher John Scotus Eriugena (d.c. 875 CE) translated the writings of Pseudo-Dionysius into Latin and gave a central place to apophatic theology. He mediated apophatic theology to the theologians of the Latin Middle Ages. The doctrine of the incomprehensibility of God was frequently voiced in the Middle Ages. It was upheld by the Christian Scholastics and by notable Reformist theologians.

Thomas Aquinas (d. 1274 CE)

 The Italian Dominican theologian Thomas Aquinas (d. 1274 CE) in his magnum opus, the Summa Theologica discussed whether God is the object of the science of theology. He noted the point that theology does "not start by making the assumption of defining God; as St John Damascene remarks, In God we cannot say what he is" (Ia.7; Aquinas, 1964:25). In various of his works Aquinas echoes his words "What God actually is always remains hidden from us. And this is the highest knowledge one can have of God in this life, that we know Him to be above every thought that we are able to think of Him." (De Veritate cited Happold 1971:31). In the Fourth Lateran Council (1215) incomprehensibilitas is explicitly declared to be a property of God.

The Cloud of Unknowing (14th cent. CE)

 The unknown English, possibly Carthusian author of the mystical treatise The Cloud of Unknowing (14th cent. CE) gave preeminence to spiritual love in the quest for experience of the unknowable Godhead beyond reason. Much influenced by Pseudo-Dionysius (= Saint Denis) -- cited as having said, "The truly divine knowledge of God is that which is known in unknowing" (LXX) -- this work which is addressed to a young contemplative monk. It has it that the mystic quest is beyond both intellectual study and the imaginative faculty. In the humble lifting up of the heart to God one finds a "cloud of unknowing" for, "This darkness and cloud is always between you and your God, no matter what you do, and it prevents you from seeing him clearly by the light of understanding in your reason, and from experiencing him in sweetness of love in your affection." (III:33 trans. Walsh, 1981:120).

Nicholas of Cusa (d.1464 CE)

 The German philosopher Nicholas of Cusa (d.1464 CE) wrote a treatise On Learned Ignorance (1440 CE). Much influenced by Dionysius and Erigena he reckoned `learned ignorance' to be the most advanced stage of knowledge. This  in the light of the unknowability of absolute truth and of the Godhead beyond names and positive attributes. He regarded negative theology as fundamental.

Martin Luther (d.1546)  

 Martin Luther (d.1546) frequently referred to the All-Powerful God, as One hidden Deus Absconditas (the Hidden God) "in distinction from the Deus Revelatus (revealed God) as still a hidden God in view of the fact that we cannot fully know Him even through His special" (Berkhof:31) CHECK…

 Best known for his monumental The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church, Vladimir Lossky (d. 1958) is widely recognized as having been a pre-eminent Russian Orthodox émigré writer. He considered negative theology' (apophasis) to be normative in Christian dogmatic reflection (Williams, 1980:96).

Karl Barth (d. 1968)

 The influential Swiss Reformed (Protestant) theologian Karl Barth (d. 1968) in his incomplete though massive Church Dogmatics (1927>) devotes a section to `Limits of the knowledge of God' (II § 27;179-254), the basic `Hiddenness of God'. A useful sketch of the history of the Christian affirmation of the incomprehensibilitas Dei is registered. The unknowability of God has a "basic and determinate position" relative to those doctrines surrounding the knowledge of God (Barth 1957:185)

 In the article `Trinity' in the recent Encyclopedia of Religion (ed. Eliade et al. 1987) the incomprehensibility of God is clearly stated,

"First, God is an ineffable and Absolute Mystery, whose reality cannot adequately be comprehended or expressed by means of human concepts" (ERel. 15:55).


 The Arabic word   الله, Allāh (probably a contraction of  ال and  اله  al + ilāh = `the deity', Allāh) is the Islamic proper or personal Name. Indicative of the Essence of God this word occurs over 2,500 times in the Qur'ān. It is closely related to several of the Biblical Hebrew (and other Semitic) designations of God e.g. El= אל, Eloah (Heb. fem. Singular) = אלוהּ, Elohim (Heb. fem. pl. = sing.) = אלהים .  According to the great French Thomist and expert in Islamic philosophy and Qur’ānic studies, Louis Gardet (1904-1986), the term Allāh describes God "in his inaccessible nature as a deity both unique and one (tawḥīd) whose essence remains unrevealed" (ER 6:29). Without bypassing the divine providential immanence, the Qur'ān repeatedly underlines God's transcendence. It refers, for example, to God as greatly exalted above human theological and other concepts. God is "above and beyond all categories of human thought and imagination, for He is "beyond all that they describe [of Him]" (Q. 6:100b cited Nasr, 1987:314). He is One Who "cannot be comprehended by vision" (Q. 6:101):

لَا تُدْرِكُهُ الْأَبْصَارُ وَهُوَ يُدْرِكُ الْأَبْصَارَ وَهُوَ اللَّطِيفُ الْخَبِيرُ

"Vision comprehendeth Him not, but He comprehendeth [all] vision. He is the Subtle (al-laṭīf), the All-Informed (al-khabīr)" (Q.6:103)

The universal Deity of the Qur’ān is, furthermore, One incomparable for لَيْسَ كَمِثْلِهِ شَيْءٌ وَهُوَ السَّمِيعُ البَصِيرُ , "There is naught like unto Him for He is the All-Hearing (al-samī`), the All-Seeing (al-baṣīr)" (Q. 42:11; cf. 16:60; 32:27). He is indeed إِنَّ اللَّهَ كَانَ عَلِيًّا كَبِيرًا    supremely "All-High", "Transcendent" or "Exalted" (al-`aliyy an), One All-Mighty (kabīr an) (Q. 4:34b; 22:62; 31:30).

Some Early Shi`i Traditions.

Shī`ī Muslims on the basis of statements of the Imams often made a sharp distinction between the attributes of the sanctified Divine dhāt ("Essence") and the other divine attributes which they generally understood figuratively. Worth quoting in this connection is Imām `Alī's apophatic theological declaration:

كمال التوحيد نفى الصفات عنه

“The Perfection of the Divine Unity (al-tawḥīd) consists in negating the [Divine] Attributes (al-ṣifāt) from Him”.

Another translation of this passage could read :

"Absolute unity (kamāl al-tawhīd) excludeth all attributes (al-ṣifāt)". [18]

The apophatic maxim cited above is frequently quoted by the central figures of the Bahā’ī religion, the Bāb, Bahā’u’llāh and `Abdu’l-Bahā’. It is cited above exactly in the slightly summarized or paraphrased form in which BA cites it in his Haft vadī (Seven Valleys) and `Abdu’l-Bahā’ quotes it in his Tafsīr Kuntu kanz an makfiyy an, (Commentary on the Divine Utterance “I was a hidden treasure”’). [1]  The full form of this text derives from the first Khuṭba (`Sermon’ or `Homily’) contained in the Arabic  Nahj al-balagha (“The Path of Eloquence”) ascribed to Imam `Alī (d. 40/661). The text of the relevant passage reads as follows :

“The commencement of religion (al-dīn) is the gnosis (ma`rifat) of Him [God]. And the perfection of the gnosis (ma`rifat) of Him [God] is the affirmation of Him (al-taṣdīq bi-hi). And the perfection of the affirmation of Him (al-taṣdīq bi-hi) is [the acknowledgement of] His Oneness (tawḥīd). And the perfection of the affirmation of His Oneness (tawḥīd) is through sincerity (al-ikhlāṣ) before Him. And the perfection of sincerity before Him is the negation of the [Divine] Attributes (nafī al-ṣifāt) from Him. This inasmuch as testimony (shahāda) unto every [single] Attribute is other than any [real] depiction (al-mawṣūf) [of Him].  This since the testimony (shāhada) of every such depiction (al-mawṣūf) has nothing to do with any attribute (ṣifat) of His.”

“Whosoever depicts God, praised be He, commits an [illicit] association with Him (fa-qad qarnahu). And whosoever associates something with Him has indeed duplicated Him. And whosoever duplicates Him has fragmented Him. And whoever thus fragments Him is ignorant of Him. It is only someone who is ignorant of Him who attempts [direct] allusion [reference] (ashāra) unto Him. Indeed! Whosoever makes allusion (ashāra) unto Him limits Him. And whomsoever limits Him [falsely] has indeed [illicitly] attempted to enumerate Him. Whosoever enumerates Him thus [illicitly] counts Him.“

 “And [whosoever] utters [the enquiry] 'within what [ is He]?' has [thus falsely] encapsulated Him. And whosoever asks 'above what [is He]?' has [falsely] assigned Him to isolated vacuity.  [He is] Being (ka’in) but not as a result of being existent (mawjūd), neither as a result of being non-existent (`adm). [He is One associated] with everything (ma`a kulli shay’in) though not  any [direct] comparison (lā bi-muqāranat in) might be made. [He is] Other then everything (ghayr kulli shay’in) though not as a result of being withdrawn  (lā bi-muzā’aylat in). [He is] One Active (fā`al) though not as a result of [any] movement(s) (ḥarakāt) or by means of some instrument[s] (al-ālat). [He is] OneAll-Seeing (baṣīr) although none of His creatures could [possibly] envision Him. He was a [Divine] Unity (muttawaḥid) even when there were none dwelling who might gain association with Him and none who might feel alone on account of His absence.” [20]

The above paragraphs stand among the most important and widely known apophatic theological passages in Shī`ī Islamic literatures. Other significant apophatic type traditions of the Shī`ī Imāms, are cited by Muhammad ibn Ya`qūb ibn Isḥāq al-Kulaynī (d. Baghdad c. 329/941) towards the beginning of his important and foundational Imami Shī`ī ḥadīth compilation entitled al-Uṣul min al-kāfī (“The Bases for what is Sufficient [in Tradition]”). [21] This within the section on Tawḥīd (the Divine Unity), especially that division headed, “He cannot be known save through Himself” (lā ya`raf illā bihi) (see al-Kafi, I:85-86). This heading is probably inspired by a phrase in the tradition cited therein attributed to the first Shī`ī Imam and fourth Sunnī Caliph, Imam `Alī as cited by Ja`far al-Ṣādiq :

قَالَ أَمِيرُ الْمُؤْمِنِينَ ( عليه السلام ) اعْرِفُوا اللَّهَ بِاللَّهِ وَ الرَّسُولَ بِالرِّسَالَةِ وَ أُولِي الْأَمْرِ بِالْأَمْرِ بِالْمَعْرُوفِ وَ الْعَدْلِ وَ الْإِحْسَانِ

“Know God through God (bi-Allāh) and the Messenger [of God] (al-rasūl) through the Message (al-risāla) and the possessors of the Command (ūlī al-amr) through the Command (bi’l-amr), through understanding (ma`rūf), justice (al-`adl) and good deeds (al-iḥsān)” (al-Kafī, I:85).

Towards the end of a similar though slightly longer tradition we read

اعْرِفُوا اللَّهَ بِاللَّهِ يَعْنِي أَنَّ اللَّهَ خَلَقَ الْأَشْخَاصَ وَ الْأَنْوَارَ وَ الْجَوَاهِرَ وَ الْأَعْيَانَ

فَقَدْ عَرَفَ اللَّهَ بِاللَّهِ وَ إِذَا شَبَّهَهُ بِالرُّوحِ أَوِ الْبَدَنِ أَوِ النُّورِ فَلَمْ يَعْرِفِ اللَّهَ بِاللَّهِ ...  

Know God through God (`arafū Allāh bi’Allāh)! That is to say, that God created persons, lights, essences and eyes … [Hence] Know God through God (`araf Allāh bi’Allāh) though when He is associated with spirit [soul] (al-rūḥ), body [corporeality] (al-badan) or light (al-nūr) in impossible that one has known God through God (ya`rif Allāh bi’Allāh).” (ibid, I:85).

God is not defined by anything save Himself; not by Soul-Spirit, Body, Light or anything else aside from Him. Further in the same apophatically inclined section of the al-Kafī we read in the section `The prohibition on describing in what manner [God is] (lit. `howness’ of God (`an nahiyy `an kalām fī’l-kayfiyya) that  Ja`far al-Ṣādiq counseled:

تَكَلَّمُوا فِي خَلْقِ اللَّهِ وَ لَا تَتَكَلَّمُوا فِي اللَّهِ فَإِنَّ الْكَلَامَ فِي اللَّهِ لَا يَزْدَادُ صَاحِبَهُ إِلَّا تَحَيُّراً

"Discourse about the creation of God (khalq Allāh) but do not converse [directly] about God [Himself] (fī Allāh) for direct discussion about God increases naught but the bewilderment of such as indulge in it" (Kāfī, I: 92)

And similarly, as relayed from Ja`far al-Ṣādiq through a certain Harīz :

تَكَلَّمُوا فِي كُلِّ شَيْ‏ءٍ وَ لَا تَتَكَلَّمُوا فِي ذَاتِ اللَّهِ

"Talk together about everything but do not discuss the Essence of God (dhāt Allāh)" (ibid, I:92).

As relayed from a certain Sulayman ibn Khalid the same 6th Imam interpreted Qur’ān 53:42 أَنَّ إِلى رَبِّكَ الْمُنْتَهى ("And the ultimate [state] (al-muntahā) is [returning] unto thy Lord"  to indicate that human beings should, forthwith, انْتَهَى الْكَلَامُ إِلَى اللَّهِ    “terminate the discussion about God” (al-Kafī 1: 92).

The Divine Ipseity - Huwiyya ("I-ness").

The subject of theological and other aspects of the modes of referring to the Qur’anic-Islamic personal God are sometimes centered upon His Divine Self Identity or Ipseity. The Arabic third person masculine pronoun هو   huwa = `He is' is many times used of God (Allāh) in the Qur'ān. In an extended Arabic form of this word it becomes هوية   huwiyya (lit. "He-ness") wjich term came to indicate the Divine Self-Identity or Ipseity. [22] The Arabic huwiyya is an abstract word that was originally "coined in order to express in Arabic the nuances of Greek philosophy" (Goichon, `Huwiyya' EI2 III: 644). It occurs in the so-called `Theology of Aristotle', various writings of Abū ʿAlī al-Ḥusayn ibn ʿAbd Allāh ibn Sīnā or Avicenna (d. 1037) and in many later Islamic theologians, mystics and philosophers. In medieval and later Islamic mysticism it was a term used to denote the transcendent Divinity.

The Great Shaykh  and `Father of Islamic Mysticism', Muḥyī al-Dīn Ibn al-`Arabī (d.1240 CE).

In his al-Futūḥāt al-Makkiyya (`Meccan Openings’) and other works, Shaykh Muḥyī al-Dīn Ibn al-`Arabī (d.1270 CE) frequently discusses deep theological issues. In for example, the VIth section (bāb) of opening volume of the al-Futūḥāt which is entitled Fī ma`rifat al-bada’ al-khalq al-ruḥānī (“On the gnosis of the genesis of the spiritual creation) the Great Shaykh writes :

“Now as for the knowledge of the Reality of the Divine Essence (ḥaqīqat al-dhāt), such is indeed interdicted [abstracted, forbidden, prohibited…] (mamnū`). It can in no wise be known through rationalistic proof(s) (dalīl) or by means of intellectual evidence (burhān `aqlī). Neither can it [the reality of His Essence] be encompassed by any limiting definition (ḥadd)! For He indeed, glorified be He, is beyond likening to anything; neither is anything like unto Him! How then could what can be likened unto things [mundane = humans beings] (al-ashyā’) come to know He to Whom nothing is similar and Who is similar to nothing [at all]? Thus is your knowledge restricted to لَيْسَ كَمِثْلِهِ شَيْءٌ, “There is naught like unto Him” (Q. 42:11b) and وَيُحَذِّرُكُمْ اللَّهُ نَفْسَهُ “God would have you beware of Himself” (Q. 3: 27b[28b]). The [very Islamic] law (al-shar`) has prohibited contemplation [thinking about, reflection on] of the Essence of God (al-tafakkur fī dhāt Allāh).”

“On [another secondary level] it is known that it [the “Divine Essence”] is the “Universal Reality” (al-ḥaqīqat al-kulliyya), which is distinct from Ultimate Realty (li’l-ḥaqq) and distinct from the world (l’l-`alām) for it cannot be depicted relative to either existence (bi’l-wujūd) or non-existence (bi’l-`adam); neither as something existent (al-ḥudūth) nor as something immemorial (al-qidam) for it [the Divine Essence] is Pre-Existent (al-qadīm)… (al-Futuḥāt vol. I. sect. VI. pp. 118-9 line 35ff).[23]     

Despite his frequent articulation of the apophatic transcendence of God, Ibn al-`Arabī has somewhat unfairly been accused of propounding an unbecoming pantheistic monism. The ambiguous, multi-faceted phrase waḥdat al-wujūd (lit. on one level “oneness of existence”) commonly attributed to him, should not simply be viewed as a pantheistic maxim. Matters are much more theologically sophisticated. His theology is both completely straightforward and, on other levels and at the same time, fairly abstruse or complicated. Details cannot be gone into here. [24]  Ibn al-`Arabī wrote much that contradicts the polemical assertion (voiced for centuries in many quarters of the Muslim world), that he held to an unsatisfactory notion of God.

It has been appropriately said by the polymathic German Islamicist Annemarie Schimmel (1922-2003) that Ibn al-`Arabī, “championed the Unknowability and Unmanifest nature of the Absolute Essence” and (drawing on Henri Corbin) that he "experienced the vision of the highest divine essence in the shape of the word هو    (or huwa, namely)  "He,"  luminous between the arms [margin like divisions in the shape] of the letter    =  “H”  (الهاء   al-hā) the Arabic letter “H” (Schimmel, 1975: 270, adapted). [25] The passage referred to here comes from the dense and complex section twenty-seven in volume II of Ibn al-`Arabī’s al-Futūḥāt (Vol. II sect. XXVII = pp. 445-449). It initially deals with the gnosis of various cosmic and angelological configurations of the letters of the Arabic alphabet closing with reference a vision of the Great Shaykh of the form of the first letter “H” of the word Huwiyya (“He-ness” or Ipseity) which denotes the theological Self-Identity of God:

Very tentatively translated a portion of this passage reads:

“I visioned in its morphological outwardness (al-waqi`a al-ẓāhir) the Divine Ipseity (al-huwiyya al-ilāhiyya) [= the word هوية] in its evident reality and in its deep inner dimension (bāṭin). This I had not seen this prior to that [aforementioned] time in an outward vision (mashadan) among our [various] visionary experiences (mushāhid-nā)... And its forms are similitudes (mithāl an) of the [two] side strokes [`lines’ or `margins’](al-hāmish) as appropriate to [the  [letter] al-hā’ (= “H”). (al-Futuhat vol. II: 449 last lines)

Henri Corbin somewhat loosely summed up aspects of this passage follows:

This visionary capacity… is discernible throughout Ibn 'Arabī's work. It embraces, for example, his ability to "visualize" certain letters of the Arabic alphabet… Thus he visualizes the Divine Ipseity, the huwlya, in the form of the Arabic letter ha, resplendent with light and placed on a red carpet; between the two branches of the ha gleam the two letters hw (huwa, He), while the ha projects its rays upon four spheres” (see Corbin, Creative Imagination [in Alone with the Alone], 234). [26]

Ibn al-`Arabī underlined the unknowability and unmanifest nature of the transcendent Divine Essence: "The Divine Essence (al-dhāt al-ilāhiyya) cannot be understood by the rational faculty" (Ibn `Arabi, Futuhāt II: 257; Chittick, 1989:60). The Divine Essence is transcendent above the cosmos, "independent of the worlds" (Q. 3:97 ibid II: 502).  He often cited the following prophetic tradition: "Reflect (tafakkur) upon all things, but reflect not upon God's Essence." (cited ibid 62). Any attempt by human beings to fathom the Divine Essence is futile as is implied in the Qur' ānic phrase, "God would have you beware of Himself (nafsihi)" (3:28/30).

Chittick sums up key aspects of Ibn `Arabī's theology when he states, "God is known through the relations, attributions, and correlations that become established between Him and the cosmos. But the Essence is unknown, since nothing is related to It":  

"In respect of Itself the Essence has no name, since It is not the locus of effects, nor is It known by anyone. There is no name to denote It without relationship, nor with any assurance (tamkīn). For names act to make known and to distinguish, but this door [to knowledge of the Essence] is forbidden to anyone other than God, since "None knows God but God." So the names exist through us and for us. They revolve around us and be‑come manifest within us. Their properties are with us, their goals are toward us, their expressions are of us, and their beginnings are from us...Reflection (fikr) has no governing property or domain in the Essence of the Real, neither rationally nor according to the Law. For the Law has forbidden reflection upon the Essence of God, a point to which is alluded by His words, "God warns you about His Self" (3:28). This is because there is no interrelationship (munasaba) between the Essence of the Real and the essence of the creatures. (al-Futuḥāt I: 230)

“In our view there is no disputing the fact that the Essence is unknown. To It are ascribed descriptions that make It incomparable with the attributes of temporal things (al-ḥadath). It possesses eternity (al-qidam), and to Its Being is ascribed beginninglessness (al-azal). But all these names designate negations, such as the negation of beginning and everything as appropriate to temporal origination" (Futuḥāt II: 557 cited Chittick, 1989:62).

To return to an aspect of the theology surrounding the letter “H” of the Huwa (“He is”)  and of the closely related word  Huwiyya indicative of the Divine Ipseity. [27]  It can first be noted that there is a section on هوية (huwiyya = “He-ness”) in the important foundational al-Insān al-kāmil.. ("The Perfect Man [Human]") of the key disciple of Ibn al-`Arabī named `Abd al-Karām al-Jīlī [Gilānī]  (d. c. 832/ 1428).  This important Persian Shī`īte Sufī writes in this work:

"The Ipseity of the Ultimately Real [True One] (God; huwiyya al-ḥaqq):  this indicates His hiddenness (ghayb), the manifestation of which is impossible save by means of the totality of the [Divine] Names and Attributes. This since their Reality alludeth unto the interiority of the Divine Uniqueness (bāṭin al-wāḥidiyya); it alludeth unto His Being (kūn) and His Essence (dhāt) by means of His Names and Attrubutes: `The Ipesity (al-huwiyya) is the hiddenness of the Divine Essence which is Uniquely One (wāhid)” (Jīlī, al-Insān [1956] 1: 96-7 trans. Lambden).

Also related to the Arabic letter  "h" (hā') and هو  huwa (`He is') is the designation of the dhāt, the Divine Essence as (loosely) `the sphere of the Divine Ipseity'. Traditionally this realm lies `above' and `beyond' the ever more elevated succession of spheres or `worlds' set forth in Islamic cosmologies:

  • [1] Nāsūt ("this Mortal World");
  • [2] Malakūt ("the world of the angels or the Kingdom [of God]");
  • [3] Jabarūt (`the sphere of the Divine decrees or celestial Powers") and
  • [4] Lāhūt ("the realm of the Divine theophany"). [28]
  • [5] Hāhūt (“the apophatic realm of the Unknowable Godhead”).

The  fifth possible designation of the most transcendent sphere is thus هاهوت  Hāhūt which name is modeled on the names of the abovementioned `realms', names which are themselves rooted in Christian Aramaic or Syriac theological terminology (see Arnaldez, `Lāhūt and Nāsūt' EI2).  Hāhūt  indictes the yet more or most elevated, inaccessible sphere of the Dhāt-Allāh the Essence of Divinity or the Divine Ipseity. The Hāhūt realm is held to forever remain utterly incomprehensible to all, whether they be created or uncreated, including human beings, the elevated, archangelic  Concourse on High (al-malā’ al-a`lā) and the totality or all of the Divine (Per.) maẓhar-i ilāhī or Manifestations of God. Diverse references to Hāhūt are found in the writings of numerous Muslim philosophical and other writers and mystics. It also occurs in such writings of Baha’u’llah as his Lawḥ-i kull al-ṭa`ām (The Tablet of All Food) (on this see below). The Bahā’ī teaching is that even the Manifestations of God are not privy to the Ultimate mystery of the Ipseity, Dhāt-Allāh or Veiled Essence of the Godhead. [29]

The Qur'ān accords God various "Names" indicative, among other things, of the Divine perfections. Some of these Qur'ānic `Names of God' are traditionally reckoned among the ninety-nine `Most Beautiful Names [of God]' (al-asmā ' al-ḥusnā, see Q. 20:8). Certain of them indicate the divine unknowability just as others indicate the divine immanence. Of obvious relevance in the former respect is God's being al-ghayb ("the Mystery", "the Unseen") which occurs a number of times in the Qur'ān (2:3 see Kassis, 479-80)

Relevant also is the hapax legomenon (`once occurring') Divine attribute, the Divine Name Ṣamad (loosely meaning)  "Impenetrable", "Eternal", "Everlasting" which Attribute occurs only in the centrally important Sūrat al-Tawḥīd ("Sūra of the Divine Unity", 112:2). The Arabic root Ṣ-M-D has the primary meaning "without hollow" or "without cleft" perhaps indicating, as Louis Gardet has recently argued, the Divine impenetrability or unknowability (Gardet, ER 6:28). This same aforementioned has translated the name of God `Aẓīm as "Inaccessible" (Q. 2: 255; 42:4, etc) indicating One "well beyond the bounds of human understanding, which cannot limit him in any way or compare him to anything (ibid, 31). Qur'ān 57: 3 not only describes God as the "First and the Last" but also the "Manifest and the Hidden (ẓāhir wa'l-bāin)." While His attribute ẓāhir implies the possibility of His being "disclosed", "manifest" or "outward", bāṭin indicates his being "Hidden", "Unmanifest" or "Inward":

هُوَ الْأَوَّلُ وَالْآخِرُ وَالظَّاهِرُ وَالْبَاطِنُ وَهُوَ بِكُلِّ شَيْءٍ عَلِيمٌ

“He is the First and the Last the Seen and the Hidden. And He knoweth all things” (Q. 57:3).

 It is sometimes reckoned that the supreme or "Greatest Name of God" (al-ism al-a`ẓam) is the "name of God's Essence (al-dhāt) as well as of all the Divine Names (asmā') and Attributes (ṣifāt) `as related to and "contained" in the Divine Nature" (Nasr, 1987:312). The many attributes of God (ṣifāt Allāh) are fundamentally appellations and actions of the Divinity. From early medieval times attempts were made to systematize and classify them. [30] The relationship of the various Attributes and the Essence was much debated. The most basic attribute was wujūd ("Existence") which had been equated with the dhāt Allāh (the "Essence of God") and with the nafs Allāh ("Self of God") which is several times mentioned in the Qur'ān (Q.3:28; 6:54; 5:116; 20:41).

Some Muslim "theologians", furthermore, spoke of the `Attributes of the Essence' (ṣifāt al-dhāt) which indicate aspects of the divine transcendence (e.g. Qayyūm = `Self-Subsisting') which are (in varying ways) differentiated from other supplementary divine attributes e.g. various divine powers, such as Providence and Immanence. Islamic theologians and philosophers disagreed as to whether the divine attributes are [1] the very Essence, the opinion of various Mu`tazilites and philosophers; [2] something different from the Essence, or [3] neither the Essence nor something different. (al-Sharkawi, 1983: 30). [31]

For some Sunni Muslims the strict doctrine of tawḥīd ("Unity of God") was maintained by holding that the `Attributes of the Essence' were co-eternal with and subsisted in His Essence. In an inexplicable way they were not God nor other than Him (bi-lā kayf wa bi-lā tashbīḥ = `Without asking how or comparison'). The complications of the various categories of the divine attributes cannot be entered into here. See further, for example, Gardet ER 6:33-34.

Neo-Platonism, Islamic Philsophy and Apophatic theology

 In sayings attributed to the Prophet Muhammad and the [Twelver] Imāms contained in a multitude of Sunnī and Shī`ī sources, there are numerous statements underlining the exalted transcendence or unknowability of God. The inaccessibility and unknowability of God are indirectly expressed in Islamic cosmology in a multitude of different ways. In this respect Neoplatonic influence was early on significant in the evolution of Islamic theological perspectives.  A recension of the last three books of Plotinus' Enneads with some commentary was early on translated into Arabic (and Syriac) under the erroneous title `The Theology of Aristotle' (Uthālājiyā Arisṭāṭālīs). Widely known from the mid-9th century CE., the Pseudo-Aristotelain `Theology' was commented upon by early Muslim philosophical theologians; including al-Kindī (d.c.870 CE) and Al-Farabī (d.950) the so-called `Second Teacher' (al-mu`allim al-thānī) whose highly influential `Opinions of the Inhabitants of the Virtuous City' commences with a Neo-Platonically influenced chapter `On the First Being' (Lawson, 1991:118). One of the Arabic Plotinus sources Fī al-ilm al-ilāhā ("On the Divine Science") has it that,

"Whoever wishes to describe the Almighty Creator must remove from Him all attributes" (from the Arabic Enneads fragments, cited Walker 1974:13).

As indicated above, this theological maxim is echoed in many Islamic and Bābī-Bahā’ī sources.

In addition to writings of Plotinus, certain works  (or fragments and versions of writings)  of the Neoplatonist philosophers Porphry (d. c. 305 CE), Iamblichus (d. c. 330 CE) and Proclus Lycaeus (d. 487 CE) were also available in Arabic as a result of the Hellenistic scholars having taken refuge “in Persian courts after Justinian closed the then Neoplatonic Platonic academy at Athens in 529" (Morewedge, 1992: viii). As a religious philosophy Neoplatonism was much drawn upon by the highly influential Abū ʿAlī al-Ḥusayn ibn ʿAbd Allāh ibn Sīnā or  Avicenna (d. Hamadan, 1037 CE), `Abū l-Walīd Muḥammad bin ʾAḥmad bin Rušd or Averroes (d. Marrakesh, 1198 CE) and numerous other Islamic theologians and philosophers. Neoplatonism had a significant impact upon major medieval Jewish, Christian and Islamic philosophers and theologians and inclined many in their articulation of an apophatic theological position.

The renowned Islamicist Fazlur Rahman Malik (1919-1998) succinctly summed up the influence of Neoplatonic streams of thought about the “One” into early Islam:

"On the basis of the Plotinian idea of the ultimate ground of Reality the One of Plotinus, as interpreted by his followers and endowed with a mind that contained the essences of all things, the philosophers re‑interpreted and elaborated the Mu`tazilite doctrine of the Unity of God. According to the new doctrine, God was represented as Pure Being without essence or attributes, His only attribute being necessary existence. The attributes of the Deity were declared to be either negations or purely external relations, not affecting His Being and reducible to His necessary existence. God's knowledge was thus defined as `non-absence of knowable things from Him'; His Will as `impossibility of constraint upon His Being'; His creative activity as `emanation of things from Him', etc." (1978: 118).

Apophatic theology and Ismā’ilī Gnosis

The unknowability of the God beyond attributes is registered in  the Ismā’īlī related Rasā'il Ikhwān al-safā' ("Treatises of the Brethren of Purity", 10th cent. CE?)  which  were are here and there influenced by various schools of Hellenistic wisdom (Netton 19).  Nascent Ismā`īlī (Shī`ī) philosophy was strongly influenced by Neoplatonic thought: "leading members of the Ismā`īlī sect accepted … a considerable dose of neoplatonic theory as a reinforcement for a dogma whose central proposition was the unknowableness of God" (Walker 1974:7).

Neoplatonic cosmology and theology seems to have been introduced by the Ismā’īlī  Dā`ī ("summoner") for Khurasān and Central Asia, Muhammad al-Nasafī (d. Bukhārā 332/943) who authored a Kitāb al-Maḥṣūl (“Book of the Yield”). He was influenced by an Arabic recension of parts of Plotinus' Enneads (“Nines”) in the form of the Pseudo-Aristotelan `Theology' (Walker 1993: 40f). His ideas were developed by Abū Ya`qūb al-Sijistānī (fl. mid. 10th cent. CE?). For al-Sijistānī the ultimate Godhead is beyond `being' and attributes; the Divine Identity (innāyah) is even way beyond unknowability. Even the logicality of apophatic theology is an inadequate indication of the nature of the Godhead. Negative theology is negated before the sublime mystery of the Ultimately Unknowable, the transcendent Godhead way beyond unknowing. Before the sublime gravitas of the God Who transcends being and non-being is the negation of the negated:

"There does not exist a tanzīh ["transcendence"] more brilliant and more splendid than that by which we establish the absolute transcendence of our Originator through the use of these phrases in which a negative and a negative of a negative apply to the thing denied." (Kitāb al-Iftikhār, cited Walker 1993:78).

The essence of the Creator is separated from the creation by veils (ḥejāb), curtains (setr), and pavilions (sorādeq) impregnated with the divine attributes (Majlesī, LVIII, chaps. 2ff., with frequent references to Ebn Bābūya). = COSMOGONY AND COSMOLOGY v. In Twelver Shiʿism BY Mohammad Ali Amir-Moezzi  Eir Vol. VI, Fasc. 3, pp. 317…

 The Deity Concealed Behind Veils, Curtains and Pavilions.

In summing up aspects of Imamī Shī`ī cosmology it has been noted that "The essence of the Creator is separated from the creation by veils (ḥijāb), curtains (siṭr), and pavilions (surādiq) impregnated with the divine attributes" (EIr 6:317). [32] A large number of hadith in both Sunnī and Shī`ī collections substantiate this statement and give an indication of the Unseen and Unapproachable nature of the Godhead sometimes in very beautiful symbolic language. Were, the Islamic traditions counsel, the veils or pavilions to be removed from the Being or Face of the Unknowable God, the universe would be incinerated, totally destroyed. Should God Himself be inappropraterly revealed, the gravitas of His Reality cease to be concealed behind 7,000 or 70,000 veils of Light and Darkness, the consequences would be catastrophic. A number of traditions to this effect are ascribed in both Sunnī and Shī`ī collections to be Prophet Muhammad. It may be appropriate here to review a few Islamic texts and theological ḥadīth about the dire consequences of any human vision of God’s “Face”.

First a tradition recorded in the Musnad (          ) of the Sunnī ḥadīth compiler Aḥmad ibn Hanbal (b. Baghdad 164/780 – d. 241/855) :

In the Kitāb al-aymān of the al-Ṣaḥīḥ  of Muslim

… God does not sleep...

In the Sunan of Ibn Majah

 This Hadith is quoted from the Prophet Muhammad somewhat differently by the Sunnī traditionalist Abū ʻAbd-Allāh Muḥammad ibn Yazīd Ibn Mājah (209-273 ah = 824-887 CE) in the Kitāb al-Muqaddama (Book of the Prolegomenon) of his Kitāb al-Sunan (Book of the Sound [Hadīth) as transmitted from Abī `Ubayda through Abī Mūsā as follows

“God has seventy thousand veils of light and darkness; if He were to remove them, the radiant splendors of His Face would burn up whoever (or ‘whatever creature’) was reached by His Gaze.” [7]

In the Tafsir of al-Baghawi

In the Lisān al-`Arab of Ibn Manṣūr

See on letter Sīn of Subuḥaṭ

On the exegesis of al-subūḥāt see

Ibn Qayyim al-Jawziyya – Sharh Qasida =

حديث أبي موسى الأشعري رضي الله عنه قال قال رسول الله صلى الله عليه وسلم إن الله لا ينام ولا ينبغي له أن ينام يخفض القسط ويرفعه يرفع إليه عمل الليل قبل عمل النهار وعمل النهار قبل عمل الليل حجابه النار أوالنور لو كشفه لأحرقت سبحات وجهه ما إنتهى إليه بصره من خلقه رواه مسلم

+ Bidaya wal-nihaya

Ibn al-Asqalanī al-Fatḥ al-Bārī …

In the Kitāb al-tawḥīd (Section on the Divine Unity) of his massive commentary on the al-Ṣaḥīḥ of al-Bukhar entitlerd Fatḥ al-Bārī Sharḥ Ṣaḥīḥ al-Bukharī, the polymathic Sunni thinker and exegete  Ibn al-Asqalanī  the above hadith is again cited:

Al-Ghazzali and the `Hadīth of the Veils’ in his Mishkat al-Anwar

 At one point in his celebrated Mishkat al-anwār ("The Niche of the Lights") the great Muslim theologian Abū Hāmid al-Ghazalī (d.1111) writes that "none knows Allah with a real knowledge but He Himself; for every known falls necessarily under the sway and within the province of the Knower" (trans. Gairdener, 1952:107). In his article `The Unknowability of God in al-Ghazali' Burrell writes,

 "So the upshot of God's unknowability for Ghazali, is to render speculative inquiry into God and the things of God effectively incompatible with the essential human task of responding wholeheartedly to the lure of the One -- from whom all things derive. For such inquiry is bound to fall short of its goal, and to the extent that it pretends to carry us to that goal, we will be misled and diverted from setting out on the path which can take us there (Burrell, 1986:179f). [34]
In his celebrated Mishkat al-anwār ("The Niche of Lights") al-Ghazalī also cites and comments in detail upon a version of that well-known hadith which has it that God exists beyond numerous veils of light and darkness. The version he cites (there are variants) reads as follows: [35]

"Before God are 70[000] veils of Light and Darkness. Should they be unveiled, the Splendors of His Countenance (subuḥāt wajhihi) would assuredly set ablaze all who discern Him with their vision" (cited al-Ghazālī, XXXX:157;  1964: 39). [36]

Ibn al-`Arabī  and the `Hadīth of the Veils’in the al-Futūḥāt al-Makkiyya (Meccan Openings)

A century or more after the death of al-Ghazalī, Ibn al-`Arabī responded, in a theologically weighty section of his al-Futūḥāṭ al-Makkiyya (1:110. 25-6), to the question “What are the subuḥāt al-wajh, “The Glories of the Face [of God]?”. This question is obviously rooted in a version of the ḥadīth quoted and translated above, about God being behind 70,000 veils and the dire consequences of their removal. Such an impossible removal of the veils would result in an unveiled divine Theophany of catastrophic magnitude. Ibn al-`Arabī’s non-literal response to this question is as follows:

“The "face" of a thing (wajh al-shay’) is its essence (dhāt) and its reality (ḥaqīqa). So the "Glories of the [Divine] Face" (subuḥāt al-wajh) are lights pertaining to the Essence (anwār dhātiyya); between us and them are the veils which are the Divine Names (ḥujūb al-asmā’ al-ilāhiyya). That is why He says [in the Qur’ān], "Everything is perishing except His Face" (Qur'an 28:88). Thus is indicated one of the [deep] interpretations (tā’wīlāt) of this “Face" (al-wajh).  

 “Generally speaking, these “Glories” (suhūḥāt) are the lights of the profession of God's Incomparability (anwār al-tanzīyya), which is the [apophatic] negation (salb) from Him of everything that is not worthy of Him, i.e., all properties pertaining to nonexistence (aḥkam 'adamiyya), since in reality it is nonexistence (al-`adam) that is unworthy of the Essence (al-dhāt).

“Here bewilderment (ḥayra) sets in, since He is Being Itself [the quintessence of the faces] (`ayn al-wujūh), so He is not declared incomparable with any ontological thing (amr wujūdī). For this reason the Divine Names (al-asmā’ al-ilāhiyya) are relations if you understand relations that have been occasioned (ihdāth) by the entities of the possible things because of the states that the things have acquired (iktisāb) from the Essence, since every state (ḥal) pronounces a Name which it denotes in respect to itself, either by negation (salb) or affirmation (ithbāt) or by both together.”

110.30 These Names are of two kinds. [36x] One kind is totally lights: these are the Names that denote ontological things. Another kind is totally darkness (zulam); these are the Names that denote Incomparability. The Prophet [Muhammad] said, "God has seventy" -or "seventy thousand" - "veils of light and darkness; were they to be removed, the Glories of His Face would incinerate everything perceived by the creatures' eyes”: [37x]

For if the Divine Names were to be taken away, the veils would be lifted; and if the veils-which are the Names-were to be lifted, the Unity (aḥadiyya) of the Essence would become manifest. Because of Its Unity, no entity would, remain qualified by existence. Hence Unity would erase the existence of the entities of the possible things, and they would cease being described by existence, since they only become qualified by existence through the Names. They do not become qualified by any of their own properties-in the view of both reason and the Law (aqlan wa shar'an)-except through the Names. So the possible things are behind those veils that lie adjacent to the Presence of Possibility (ḥaḍrat al-imkān), since possibility is a theophany of the Essence that causes the possible things to become qualified by existence from beyond the veils of the Divine Names. Hence the entities of the possible things gain no knowledge of God except in respect of the Names, whether by intellect or unveiling.” ( al-Futūḥāt al-Makkiyya 1: ADD trans. Chittick The Meccan Revelations, 1: 45, adapted and select transliteration added by Lambden). [37]

Ibn al-Jawzī  (d. 597/1200) and the `Hadīth of the Veils’ in his  Kitāb al-Mawḍū`āt  (Book of the  XXXX).

 Another interesting, though apparently unsubstantiated version of the so-called `Hadith of the Veils’, has been transmitted from Sahl ibn Sa`d al-Sā`idī by the Sunnī Hanbalī theologian  `Abd al-Rahman ibn `Ali ibn Muhammad Abu'l-Faraj Ibn al-Jawzī (510-597 AH = 1126-1200 CE), a neaer contemporary of Ibn al-`Arabī. As cited in his Kitāb al-Mawḍū`āt [38] it makes specific reference to four veils between select celestial archangels and God

إن بين الله عز وجل وبين الخلق سبعين ألف حجاب وأقرب الخلق إلى الله عز وجل جبريل وميكائيل ، وإسرافيل ، وإن بينهم وبينه أربع حجب : حجاب من نار ، وحجاب من ظلمة ، وحجاب من غمام ، وحجاب من الماء

 "Between God, Mighty and Glorified [be He] and the creation are 70,000 veils (ḥijāb). The most proximate (aqrab) of the creatures to God - Mighty and Glorified [be He] - are [the Archangels] Jibrīl (= Gabriel), Mīkā’il (= Michael), and Isrāfīl (= Raphael), and between them and Him are four veils (ḥujub): a veil of fire (nār), a veil of darkness (ẓilmat), a veil of cloud (ghamām), and a veil of water (mā’)."  (transmitted from Sahl Ibn Sa`d al-Sā`idī by Ibn al-Jawzī ADD ).


Versions of the `Hadīth of the Veils’  in select Shī`ī Literatures.

 Numerous often diverse versions of this hadīth and related hadith are also found in Shī`ī Islamic literatures. They are sometimes attributed to the Prophet Muhammad often as relayed through Ibn `Abbās (d. XX/XXX), the ‘Father of Tafsīr’. The following version, for example, is cited from the Shī`ī Tafsīr of `Alī ibn Ibrahīm al-Qummī (d. 10th cent. CE ) in the Shī`ī Tafsīr or Qur’ān Commentary  entitled  Tafsīr Nūr al-Thaqalayn (“Commentary of the Light of the Twin Weights”) of `Abd `Alī al-Ḥuwayzī (d.1112 /1700):

ـ في تفسير على بن ابراهيم عن النبى (صلى الله عليه وآله) حاكيا عن جبرئيل (عليه السلام) ان بين الله وبين خلقه سبعين ألف حجاب، وأقرب الخلق إلى الله أنا واسرافيل، وبيننا وبينه أربع حجاب: حجاب من نور، وحجاب من ظلمة، وحجاب من الغمام وحجاب من الماء.

“In the Tafsīr of `Alī ibn Ibrahīm [the following is related] from the Prophet [Muhammad] - may be peace of God be upon him and his family – as related from [the Archangel] Jibrīl (Gabriel), upon him be peace, that, “Betwixt God and His creation are seventy thousand veils (ḥijāb). And the closest of the creatures unto God is I myself [the Archangel Jibrīl, Gabriel] and Isrāfīl (= Seraphiel or Raphael). And between us and between Him [God] are four veils (ḥijāb); a veil of fire (nār), a veil of darkness (ẓilmat), a veil of cloud (ghamām), and a veil of water (mā’)." [39]

 The same Tafsīr Nūr al-thaqalayn also includes the following closely related prophetic tradition:

695 ـ حدثنى ابى عن أحمد بن النضر عن عمرو بن شمر عن جابر عن ابي عبدالله (عليه السلام) قال: بينا رسول الله (صلى الله عليه وآله) جالسا وعنده جبرئيل اذ حانت من جبرئيل نظرة قبل السماء إلى أن قال: قال

جبرئيل: هذا اسرافيل حاجب الرب، انه لادنى خلق الرحمن منه وبينه وبينه سبعون حجابا من نور يقطع دونها الابصار مالايعد ولايوصف،

Abī Aḥmad ibn Naṣr informed me through `Amrū ibn Shimr  from Jabīr from Abī `Abd-Allāh, that he, peace be upon him, said : ”The Messenger of God was sitting amongst us and nigh him was Jibrā’il (Gabriel).  When he drew near Gabriel and gazed in the direction of heaven he stated, “Gabriel said: `This is Isrā’fīl (Seraphiel), the Veiler [Concealer] of the Lord (ḥājib al-rabb). He is indeed the most proximate of the creatures of the All-Merciful unto Him. Yet between him and between Him [God] are seventy veils of Light (ḥijāb an min al al-nūr) which cut off the eyesight (al-abṣār) from Him. This such that He can neither be enumerated nor described..”

Imam Ja`far al-Ṣādiq (d. c. 80/669-700) and the `Ḥadīth of the Pavilians’.

 Also worth noting in this respect is the following spontaneous supererogatory supplication for the month of Ramaḍān transmitted by Abū `Abd Allāh, Imam Ja`far al-Ṣādiq (d. c. 80/669-700), in which six pavilions are spoken about relative to specific Divine Names or attributes followed by a seventh supplication to the celestial Archangels and enthroned Supreme Lord Himself :

"O my God! I verily, ask Thee by Thy Name which is inscribed in [1] the  pavilion of Glory (surādiq al-majd) and I beseech Thee by Thy Name which is inscribed in [2] the pavilion of Splendor (surādiq al-bahā'). I verily, ask Thee by Thy Name which is inscribed in [3] the pavilion of Grandeur (surādiq al-`aẓimat) and I beseech Thee by Thy Name which is inscribed in [4] the pavilion of Radiance (surādiq al-jalāl). I verily, ask Thee by Thy Name which is inscribed in [5] the pavilion of Might (surādiq al-`izzat) and I beseech Thee by Thy Name which is inscribed in [6] the pavilion of Secrets (surādiq al-sara'ir) which is Foremost (al-sābīq), Paramount (al-fā'iq), Beauteous (al-ḥusn), Splendid (al-nayyīr). And by the Lord of the Eight [Arch-] Angels (al-malā'ikat al-thamāniyat), and the Lord of the Mighty Celestial Throne (rabb al-`arsh al-`aẓīm)" (cited in Majlisī, Bihar2 58:43 from al-Iqbāl of Sayyid Raḍī al-Dīn ibn Tāwūs (589/1193-664/1266). [40]

 Finally in this connection and at this point the following deeply significant statement of Baha’u’llah it is worth noting yo conclude this section,


“His [God’s] Beauty hath no veiling save Light; His Face no covering save Revelation.”

 There exist many sometimes complicated discussions in Sunnī and Shī`ī Islamic sources about God; about the illicit nature of the human vision of God, the meaning of attaining to the liqā-Allāh, (the `Meeting’ with or `Presence’ with God’), the significance of nearness to God and of the numerous, ninety-nine or more Names and Attributes of God (asmā’ wa safāt Allāh). These issues cannot be entered into in detail here.    It much suffice to note at this point that Bābī-Bahā’ī scriptural sources generally favor spiritual or non-literal, non-anthropomorphic interpretations of these concepts. Some indications of this will be seen in the following paragraphs.

Al-Shaykhiyya and apophatic theology

 Many Safavid era (1501-17XX) and post-Safavid Qajar period (1797-1896) Muslim writers, theologians, philosophers, and mystics have, in one way or  another, followed a theological via negativa and supported the doctrine of the unknowability of God. They included some Qajar era philosopher theologians, some of great erudition such as Shaykh Aḥmad al-Aḥsā'ī (d. 1826) and his disciple and devotee Sayyid Kāẓim Rashtī (d. 1259/ 1844), whom Bahā’īs see as the twin forerunners of the Bāb.

 Shaykḥ Aḥmad at one point in his Tafsīr sūrat al-tawḥīd (Commentary on the Sura of the Divine Oneness, Q. 112), for example, gives this key quranic text an  apophatically oriented exegesis when he writes:

So God, praised be He, negates from His Attribute (ṣifat) the mode of multiplicity and number through His saying, "He God is One" (112:1). He negates alternation and diminution through His saying, "God is the AlI-Enduring" (al-Ṣamad; 112:2). He negates causation and production ('ilal wa ma'lal) through His saying, "He neither begetteth nor is begotton" (112:3). And He negates similarity and contrariety through His saying, "Not anyone is comparable to Him" (112:4). 89

Sayyid `Alī Muhammad Shirazi, the Bāb (d. 1850 CE).

There is hardly a major or minor work of the Bāb which does not commence with or contain a celebration of the Divine Transcendence and Unknowability. [41] For the Messiah figure from Shīrāz, the absolute Divine Essence (dhāt al-dhāt) is `Wholly Other'. Numerous exordiums to scores of the Bāb's Arabic and Persian compositions contain verses in which the Ultimate Godhead is declared beyond the ken of the human mind. So central was the Bāb's maintaining of the transcendence of God that He changed the Islamic basmala (= "In the Name of God the Merciful the Compassionate") with a much more apophatic verse. In his Persian Bayān III:11 he wrote:

“That which constitutes this [initial] verse (al-āyat) [of the Bayan, stands] in [replacement of] the basmala [ which is now] : 

بسم الله الامنع الاقدس

  Bism Allāh al-amna` al-aqdas

"In the Name of God, the Most Inaccessible [Abstruse], the Most Holy".

Here the last two Divine Attributes of the new again 19 letter basmala superced the classical Islamic Divine Attrubutes al-Raḥman and al-Raḥīm (the Merciful, the Compassionate) which are  present before all but one of the 114 suras of the Qur'ān. They are replaced with two non-qur'ānic superlatives which, in one way or another indicate, that the ultimate Godhead is One set apart in His transcendent Holiness.  The Arabic Bayan at III: 9  expresses this as follows:

The implication is that all of the Bayān is subsumed in the modes of the theology of the new nineteen letter basmala, crystallized in its nineteen constituent letters. Note also that nineteen is the abjad numerical value of the word Wāḥid (“Unity”, “Pleroma”) (6+1+8+3 = 19). [42] For the Bāb the number nineteen is the numerical locus of Himself and his eighteen disciples whom he designated ḥurūf al-ḥayy (“Letters of the Living”) because the word al-ḥayy (“The Living”) has a numerical value of eighteen ( ḥ=8+Y=10= 18).

As in Shī` theological traditions Qur'ān 42:11b ("There is naught like unto Him") is frequently cited in the writings of the Bāb, from his mid. 1844 CE Tafsīr Sūrat Yusuf or Qayyūm al-asmā' (“Self-Subsisting [Deity] of the [Divine] Names” = QA) (see QA suras 30, 32, 33, etc) until the very late, bulky and complex Kitāb al-asmā' (Book of Names) (1849-50). The following notes are but a few coments upon apophatic passages in the theology of the Bāb registered in a few of his many Arabic and Persian writings. The following testimonies to the incomprehensibility of God and related theological issues writings are not always dealt with in any strict chronological order.   

Qayyum al-asma' ("The Self-Subsisting [Deity] of the Divine Names") or the Tafsir Surat Yusuf (Commentary on the Surah of Joseph", Q. 12). 


The Du`a-yi Ṣaḥīfa (The Supplication[s] of the Scroll-Treatise),  Ṣaḥīfa-yi Makhzūna ("The Treasured Scroll") or  Ṣaḥīfa Ḥujjatiyya ("The Scroll of the Proof.[43]

 According to the Khuṭba al-dhikriyya ("Sermon of the Dhikr [Remembrance]) of the Bāb this multi-titled work consists of "fourteen Du`ās" ("supplications", "prayers") which "were manifest at the commencement (bad') of the [Babi] Cause (al-amr)" (Arabic text cited Afnan, 2000: 473). It thus very like dates to the first year of the Babi  era 1260/1844 though it is not impossible that it dates slightly earlier than May 22nd 1844, the date of the messianic declaration of the Bāb.

 The opening prescript or title heading of this probably 1844-1845 work of the Bāb is described as being “among his Du`as (Supplications)… relating to devotional laudation (taḥmīd) before God, exalted be He”.  Its opening paragraph commences with the Islamic basmala and continues,

       “Praised be to God Whose Being existed before all things (kulli shay'in) when there was nothing alongside Him. He existed (mawjūdan) at a moment when there was no existence (lā wujūd) for anything (li-shay') proximate to Him. He did indeed inform the inmost hearts of the mystic knowers (af'ida al-`arifīn) of that gnosis (ma`rifat) which is especially apophatic [inadequate] (adnā) yet a cataphatic [positive] depiction (waṣf in) of the tokens of His fragrant knowability (allāmat `urfihi).” [44]

Tafsir sūrat al-Ḥamd  = Sūrat al-Fatiḥa (Q.1) .

 The around thirty to thirty-five or so page Arabic Tafsir surat al-ḥamd (“Commentary on the Sūrah of Praise”) of the Bāb is an important,  probably pre-June 1845 work. It contains a detailed, often letter-rooted (atomistic, “Qabbalistic”) exposition of the basmala in the course of a commentary on the first, the opening  qur’ānic Sūrat al-fatiḥa (= Q.1), the  first chapter of the Qur’an, which, after the basmala,  begins with the phrase al-Ḥamdu li-llāhi (“Praised be unto God). Its opening paragraph celebrates the transcendence of God:

“Praise be to God, the One sanctified above the essences of the intention of all levels of existence (ni`mat al-mawjūdāt); the One transcendent above the limitations of the depictions of all levels of contingent being; the One supremely powerful above the mention of the camphorate dimension of all realms of being; the One supremely great beyond the clarification of the manifestations of essential realities (bayan ẓuhūr al-dhatiyyāt); the One sublimely pure above the station of the xxx of the divine realm (sazijiyya al-lahut); the One sublimely peerless on account of his own Being above the comprehension of the denizens of the Omnipotent realm of jabarūt (irfān al-jabarūtiyyāt)”. [45]

Tafsīr Du`a al-ṣabāh.

 Among the minor works of the Bāb is his Tafsīr Du`a al-ṣabāh, a commentary upon a phrase within a dawn prayer ascribed to Imām `Alī (d. 40/661) the cousin, son-in-law and successor of the Arabian Prophet Muhammad (see INBMC 40:155-162).[46] The phrase commented upon is part of a prayer in which God is addressed as One "the proof of Whose Essence is furnished through this same Essence (dalla `alā dhātihi bi-dhātihi)" (Qummī, 1989: 92). [47] For both the Bāb (and Baha’u’llāh, see below) this phrase indicated that the transcendent Divine Essence is really only adequately testified to Its Own nafs Reality or Logos-Self (Ar. nafs). Only God Himself can comprehend His "Essential Reality" (dhātiyyat) for the "bird" of the human "heart" has, for all eternity, been unable to "ascend" unto the domain of His mystery. Knowledge/ gnosis of the Eternal Divine Essence is impossible and inaccessible (ibid, 155-9). In this work of the Bāb, the transcendence and unknowability of God is quite frequently underlined.

Tafsir hadīth of al-`amā' (the Divine Cloud).

 Tradition has it that the Prophet Muhammad was asked, `Where was our Lord before He created the creation [or, `the heavens and the earth']? He is said to have replied, `He [God] was in a Cloud (`amā'), above it [or Him] air (hawā') and below it [or Him] air". [48] This reply probably originally expressed the conviction that God was hidden and self-subsisting in His own Being; dependent upon nothing. It perhaps indicated that before His work of creation, God was in obscurity, enshrouded in the cloud of His own Being, wrapped in a dark mist.

 For Sufis like `Abd al-Karīm al-Jīlī (1365-1420) `amā' indicated the absolute hiddenness of the transcendent Godhead. It signifies, "Being sunk in itself, bare potentiality. … the eternal and unchangeable ground of Being", the "absolute inwardness (buṭūn) and occultation (istitar)" of the transcendent Divine Essence (so Nicholson, 1967: 94-6).

 Influenced by theosophical Sufism, both the Bāb and Bahā'-Allāh used Sufi terminology extensively including the term `amā' though they rejected the monistic ontology that sometimes informs and determines certain attempts to locate the mystery of `amā'. In Bābī-Bahā'ī scripture it is not always indicative of the hidden and unknowable essence of God.

 In one of his early epistles the Bāb commented in some detail on the `tradition of `amā'.[49]  In it he states that this tradition indicates God's isolated independence. The term al-`amā' ("the Cloud") only inadequately indicates the Divine dhāt ("essence"). On another level `amā' ("cloud") and hawā' ("air") indicate the created  nafs ("Self") of God, as opposed to the mystery of His transcendent and uncreated reality. God's being in `amā'  is expressive of the station (maqām)  of the manifestation (ẓuhūr)  of the "First Dhikr" (dhikr al-awwāl  = the primal divine manifestation and locus of prophethood).

 In his interpretation, the Bāb seems to underline God's absolute otherness to such an extent that the term `amā' only indirectly hints at his transcendent unknowability. God's nafs ("Logos-Self") and dhāt ("Essence") are probably to be thought of as created and hypostatic realities indicative of, yet ontologically distinguishable from, His uncreated and absolute Ipseity.

 The manner then in which the Bāb expounds the ḥadīth of al-`amā' outrules those theosophical interpretations that are monistically oriented. The term `amā' indicates God's absolute otherness. It is derived from al-`amā or al-`amān ("blindness", "unknowing") for vision is blinded before God's Face and eyes are incapable of beholding His Countenance. `Amā' is indicative of a Reality that is "Unconditioned" (muṭlaq), "Absolute" (irf), "Uncompounded" (bat) and "Definitive" (? bātt ?).

 For the Bāb the `ḥadith of al-`amā' enshrines subtle and bewildering mysteries surrounding the Sinaitic theophany (see Qur'ān 7:142). It was not the unknowable essence of God (dhāt al-azal) that appeared in the "Kingdom of `amā' (malakāt al-`amā') and radiated forth from the Divine Light on Mount Sinai" but an amr (= lit command; here loosely `Logos' which God created from nothing). The theophany on the Mount was not the manifestation of `amā' as God's absolute essence or a monistic type `theophany or the Divine Essence' (tajallī al-dhāt) but the disclosure of the Divine Light (nār) "unto, through and in His Self (nafs)." In abstruse language the Bāb counters the monistic type interpretation of the relationship between `amā' and the `theophany of the Divine Essence' (tajallī al-dhāt) found in certain Sufi treatises. [50]

The Commentary on a Verse of the Khuṭba al-ṭutunjiyya ("Sermon of the Gulf")

 The direct vision of the absolute Divine Essence is not regarded as possible in either Bābī or Bahā'ī scripture. In a sermon ascribed to Imām `Alī known as the Khuṭba al-ṭutunjiyya ("Sermon of the Twin Gulfs")   the Imām at one point declares, "I saw God (rūyat Allāh) and Paradise [direct]  through the vision of the eye (rāy al-`ayn)!" Taken literally this statement is highly controversial. Yet both Sayyid Kāẓim Rashtī (d.1259/1843) and the Bāb register this reading as the correct one (see Sayyid Kāẓim, 1270/1853/4: cf. Lambden and Fananapazir, 1995 and see above). The recent edition of Rajab al-Bursī's  Mashariq al-anwār.. reads, "I saw the Mercy of God (raḥmat Allāh)"  (p.166) while that printed in Hā'irī's Ilẓām al-nāṣib  places a letter "wāw"  (meaning ”and”) before the word God (Allāh) (II:243).    In his al-Lawāmi` al-badā` ("The Wondrous Brilliances", 1846/7 CE), the Bāb interpreted this passage  to refer Imām `Alī's inner "vision of the Primal Will of God" (rū 'yat al-mashiyya) and not direct vision of the transcendent Deity (INBMC 40:179). In the previously referred to Risalā Du`a al-sabāh the same passage from the Khuba al-Ṭutunjiyya is quoted and interpreted in terms of the "vision of the Divine Theophany" (rū'yat al-tajallī) understood as a Divine Manifestation not a disclosure of the Divine Essence (INBMC 40:161).

Letter to Mīrzā Ḥasan Waqāyī` Nigār

  In a letter addressed to Mīrzā Ḥasan Waqāyī`-nigār, the Bāb comments upon various qur'ānic texts including the Qur'ānic phrase, "We are nearer to him [to man] than his jugular vein (ḥabl al-warīd)." (Q. 50:16b; see INBMC 40:180-192). At the very beginning of his comments on this phrase, its author underlines the utter singleness, isolatedness, transcendence and unknowability of the Divine Essence (al-dhāt). God has eternally "detached" the Divine "Names and Attributes" from referring to the "court" of His transcendent "Presence" (ḥadratihi) -- they apply primarily to His "Will" (al-mashiyyat). Nearness to the Divine Essence is impossible except by virtue of the theophany (tajallā) of His "Self" (nafs) the locus of His "Will" and of the Messenger or Manifestation of God. Qur'ān 50:16b alludes to the "sign of God" (āyat Allāh) which is found within the inmost human reality which is (symbolically speaking) the human "heart" (fū'ād) (see INBMC 40:181-183ff).

Tafsīr Laylat al-qadr ("Commentary on the Night of Power")

 Probably dating from time of the Bāb's imprisonment in Ādhirbayjān (1848-9), the Tafsīr  Laylat al-qadr ("Commentary on the Night of Power") is a succinct commentary on a phrase in sūrah 97, the Sūrat al-qadr of the Qur'ān. The sublimity of God's "Essential Reality" (al-dhātiyyat) is early on declared transcendent above "all things" (kull shay’). Among other things it is indicated that no praise is more lofty than praise of Him and no eulogium more splendid (abhā) that that of the Divine Being. Human beings only inadequately testify to the "Divinity" (uluhiyya) and "Lordship" (rubūbiyya) of the transcendent God Who is beyond human comprehension (see INBMC 69:14f).

The Ṣaḥīfa-yi `adliyya  (Epistle expressing Justice) [“The Scroll of Justice”).

 The Persian Ṣaḥīfa-yi `adliyya (“The Scroll of Justice”) of the Bāb  perhaps dates to early 1847 CE. It was written at a time when the Bāb felt obliged to underline dimensions of his Shī`ī orthodoxy. The central theological importance of apophatic theology is clearly indicated in this first major, seminal Persian work. As with most other works of the Bāb theological paragraphs with clearly apophatic statements are found towards the beginning of this work:


The third section of the Ṣaḥīfa-yi `adliyya  is headed, "On the knowledge of God (ma'rifat Allah) and the knowledge of His saints," it is stated that the basis of religion is the knowledge of God (ma'rifat Allah), the perfection of which is the knowledge of the divine unity (tawḥīd). This demands the negation of the divine names and attributes from the sanctified divine essence (dhāt-I muqaddas), for the perfection of apophasis (negation) is the appearance of the Manifestation of God who is the locus of the divine Oneness (al-aḥadiyya) around whom the divine names and attributes revolve. The relevant passagfes may be translated as follows:

Section Three: On the Gnosis of God (ma`rifat Allāh) and the Gnosis of His chosen Ones (ma`rifat awliyā’) relative to that which God-exalted and elevated be He—hath stipulated.

            [1] Know thou that the basis of [true] religion is the gnosis of God (ma`rifat Allāh). [2] And that the perfection of [this] gnosis (ma`rifat) is tawḥīd (the Divine Unity). [3] The perfection of tawḥīd (the Divine Unity) is the [apophatic] negation of the [Divine] Attributes and the [Divine] Names (nahy ṣifāt va asmā’) from His sanctified [Unknowable] Essence (dhāt-i muqaddas). [4] And the perfection of this [aforementioned] negation (nahy) [of the [Divine] Attributes and [Divine] Names] is the realization (wujūd??) of the [Apophatic Depth] Abyss of the [Divine] Unicity (lujjat-i aḥadiyya) through the comprehension (`ilm) of [both] His [apophatic] Abstraction (qaṭ`) and  the [cataphatic] Contemplation [Evidentness] (mashāhida) [ of Him] by virtue of the availability of that [Divine] Bounty [Deity] (vuṣūl-i jūd-i ān).

 [5] Now the reality of these [theological] levels constitutes a sign of God (āyāt-Allāh) which is a Singularity (vaḥda) such that by virtue of that gnosis (`irfān) and certitude (īqān) the existence of His Highness, the Lord of Might (ḥadrat-i rabb-i `izzat), is realized [actualized] (ḥāṣil). [6] Know [further] that the Pre-Existent Divine Essence (dhāt-i qadīm) in its Apparentness (ẓāhir) is [remains] His Occulted Logos Persona (nafs-i bāṭin) and the Beingness (kawnūniyyat) of that Logos Persona (nafs) is its [His] Essential Reality (dhātiyyat). (S-`Adliyya, pp. XX-XX).

Persian and Arabic Bayāns ("Expositions")

 Both the Persian and Arabic Bayāns ("Expositions") of the Bāb contain clear statements about the transcendence and incomprehensibility of the Godhead. Some key theological issues are set down in the first two bābs ("gates") of the 4th Wāḥid ("Unity") of the Persian Bayān. Persian Bayān IV: 2 discusses the two stations (maqāmayn) of the Nuqṭa ("Point") or "Sun of Truth" (shams-i ḥaqīqat = Manifestation of God). The first station is that of his being the Divine Manifestation (maẓhar-i ilāhiyya) representative of the ghayb-i dhāt ("Unseen Essence"). As the Voice of the ghayb-i dhāt ("Unseen Essence") He articulates a divinely revealed negative theology:

"He is One Indescribable by any description; One Who cannot be characterized by any depiction. Supremely Transcendent (muta`ālī) is He above any mention or praise -- sanctified beyond both pristine whiteness (kāfūr lit. Camphor) and the acme of actualization (jawhar imā' ā). It is impossible that He be comprehended by anyone other than Himself or for anyone other than He His Own Self to be united with Him. His is the creation and the Command. No God is there except Him, the One, the All-Powerful, the Transcendent" (Bayān-i farsī IV:1, 105 cf. Bayān `Arabī, IV:1).

 The second bāb ("gate") of the 4th Wāid ("Unity") makes it clear that, God being unknowable, the "Point" (nuṭqa = Manifestation of God) as the centre of the Divine Will (mashiyya) is the locus of all theological statements: "The essence of this section (bāb) is that the Eternal Divine Essence (dhāt-i azal).. hath ever been and will ever remain incomprehensible, indescribable, beyond characterization and human vision.." (Bayān-i farsī IV:2, 110; cf. al-Bayān al- `arabī IV:2).

The Persian Dalā'il- i Sab`ah (Seven Proofs).

 Perhaps addressed to a Shaykhi (and Bābi?) the Persian Dalā'il- i Sab`ah opens with a testimony to God's uniqueness, eternality and unknowability. In the light of his claim to be the Qā'im a shift in the Bāb's eschatological views can be seen in the Dalā'il-i Sab`ah. His earlier futurist though imminent eschatological perspective begins to be transformed into a partly realized or inaugurated eschatological stance. Traditional apocalyptic and other expected latter day "signs" central to the Shā'ā messianism are given, in the light of their alleged fulfilment, non-literal interpretations (see Lambden, 1995x: 00). The eschatological "meeting with God" (liqā' Allāh; see Qur'ān 13:2, etc) is not a literal coming into the presence of the eternal divine essence (dhāt-i azal) but the meeting with the divine manifestation of God (mahar-i haqāqat): with, in fact, the Bāb on the mount of Mākā (or wherever he resides: Dalā'il, 31f; cf. 57f).

 Apart from underlining the transcendence and unknowability of the Essence of God, the Bāb also emphasised the presence of the "Day of God" through His manifestation. He frequently claimed (secondary) Divinity Himself and frequently bestowed it upon others. There exist writings of the Bāb cited by Bahā'u'llāh in his Lawḥ-i Sarrāj (c. 1867) which make it clear that a "pleroma" of Bābis shared in his eschatological "Divinity" (al-ulāhiyya) and "Lordship" (al-rubūbiyya). He stated that God conferred "divinity" and "Lordship" upon whomsoever He pleased in the new eschatological era of fulfillment of the exalted person of the Qā’im who was the Bāb and the Nuqṭa-yi A`lā (“The Supreme Point), the cosmogonic originator and alphabetical locus of the Pen of Destiny (see Ma’ida-yi āsmānī  7:64).

  In Bābī and Bahā’ī scripture the Manifestation of God, as the Perfect Mirror of the Will of Divinity, is accorded secondary Divinity and Godhood. This though in a definitely subordninationalist sense. Language about God is detranscendentalized or applied to the divine Maẓhar-i ilāhī, the Manifestation of God.

 The Manifestation of God is sometimes referred to as the "Logos-Self" (nafs) or "Self of God" (nafs Allāh) and occasionally in Babi-Baha'i scripture even as the "Essence of God" (dhāt Allāh) though such expressions should not be taken so as to indicate any incarnation of the unknowable Divine Essence. If the Manifestation of God is the dhāt Allāh (“Essence/Person of the Godhead”) there exists an Essence (dhāt) behind this divine Essence (dhāt) which is the utterly transcendent and unknowable. Hence the expression dhāt al-dhāt is occasionally found. The Ultimate Godhead  remains the primary, most exalted `Essence of Essences' or Absolute Essence of God (dhāt Allāh).


The Theology of the opening lines of the Kitāb-I Panj Sha`n (Book of the Five Modes).[51]

 The opening lines of the largely Arabic Kitāb-i Panj Sha`n (Book of the Five Modes [of Revelation]) are in the revelation mode (sha`n) expressive of revealed āyāt (Arabic verses) which are theologically very challenging. They read as follows :   


In the Name of God, the Deity Most Divine (al-a'lah), the Supreme Deity (al-a'lah).

            I, verily am God, no God is there except Me, the Deity Most Divine (al-a'lah) the Supreme Godhead (al-a'lah). [2] In the Name of God, the Deity Most Divine (al-a'lah), the Supreme Deity (al-a'lah). Through God is God (bi-Allāh Allāh), the Deity Most Divine (al-a'lah), the Supreme Godhead (al-a'lah). [3] In the Name of God, the Deified, the Deified. God, no God is there except Him, the Deity Most Divine, the Supreme Deity. God, no God is there except Him, the Deified, the Deified God, no God is there except Him, the Deity Generative of the twin Deities (al-ilāhān) God, no God is there except Him, the Deity Generative of the Deity Generated. Unto God indeed, before Him [alone] are these dual Deities of the heavens and of the earth and what lieth between them. (I /1:1-5)

These above opening few lines of the Kitāb-i Panj Sha`n ( I-1) commence with a very bold “Day of God” basmala (“In the Name of God”) formula in which the qur’ānic personal Name of God الله  Allāh (itself a contraction of the definite article = al (the) + ilāh [Deity] forming Allāh and meaning literally = the God) seems to be twice expressed in the elative or superlative form (af`al). This bearing in mind that the word اله   ilāh  (= a Deity) if (ungrammatically) made into a superlative (preceded by the a vowel) prefixed (in line with the style of the Bāb) by the definite article. This (quasi-) superlative form thus also indicates Allah or God as "a Supreme Deity" -- hence the above  translation "the Supreme Deity" -- as representing a'lah (= a + ’ilāh). As it occurs twice here (and elsewhere) I have (loosely) translated “Deity Most Divine” then "Supreme Godhead" or something similar.

These opening words cannot be taken literally as being indicative of a Deity superior to the Ultimate Godhead. They most likely expresse the fact that the Godhead has been `transcendentalized', or set even higher in His-Its Ultimate Essence. This in a manner way beyond any claim to divinity on the part of the Bāb himself. Hence, it seems. the Bāb is actually highlighting God’s absolute transcendence in not claiming anything but distinctly subordinate divinity. Hence his words bi-Allāh is Allāh or "through God is God". The (quasi-) superlative of God is a fitting way for the Bāb to refer to God since he is representing the Godhead as being utterly transcendent while he himself claims a wholly subordinate or lesser level of divinity.

For the Bāb then, the Transcendent, Unknowable God is known through his person as the knowable (lesser) Deity or Divinity who is the maẓhar-I ilāhī (Manifestaton of God). The Bāb implies that God the Transcendent, Unknowable and Ultimate Being, is way beyond even Divinity itself although He-it is known through (the secondary) "Godhead" or divinity of the Manifestation of God (maẓhar-i ilahī) who is the Bāb. As a divine Messenger of God representative of the eschatological Presence of God Himself, the liqā’-Allāh or "Encounter with God"  on the Day of God (yawm Allāh), it is fitting that the Bāb both associate himself with and disassociate himself from the apophatic Ultimate Deity. He represents himself only as “God” in a secondary sense and as the Deity through whom the Deity can be known.

For both the Bāb and Bahā’u’llāh all the great Messengers or Manifestations of God can legitimately claim “divinity” by saying something like (Arabic) innanī anā Allāh, oe "I, verily am God" (see Kitāb-i iqan, 196). [52] In saying this they never mean to claim ontological identity with the absolute Essence (dhāt or dhāt al-dhāt) of the Godhead. The Manifestation of God never becomes the Absolute Godhead on the level of Essences but only represents the Godhead on the level of manifestation. Theologically it is maẓhar (manifestation) not ḥulūl (incarnation) or anything like what might be expressed by the problematic and ultimately divisive Christological terms ηομοιουσιος (= homoiousios) meaning (Christ and God the Father being) “of a similar [or like] substance,” let alone their being ηομοουσιος, (= homoousios) meaning “of the same [or one][  substance” with the Godhead (or “Father” of humanity). [53]  

God’s transcendence is thus safeguarded in view of the Bāb’s claim to (secondary) Divinity in the opening of the Kitāb-i Panj Sha`n. These kinds of deep theological issues inform many parts of the highly theologically meaningful Kitāb-I Panj Sha`n. I have only loosely translated this superlative of Allāh (which actually is a contraction of the basically femine al-ilāh meaning "the God") as “Deity Most Divine” and “Supreme Deity” though other renderings might also be equally accurate. The references to twin Deities are not intended to be polytheistic but expressive of the Ultimate Deity giving rise to the (secondary) Deity of His Manifestation. The Divine Oneness (tawḥīd) is maintained in a complex, highly creative and theologically meaningful Arabic. As noted it was in many of his works the Bāb commenced with a celebration of the sublime transcendence of the Ultimate Godhead. It is of course highly significant that he altered the Muslim basmala (In the Name of God, the Merciful, the Compassionate) formula by replacing the two words "Merciful" and "Compassionate" with two Arabic superlatives al-amna` (the most Inaccessible, ultimately Withdrawn") and al-aqdas (the Most Sanctified [Holy]): thus, "In the Name of God, the Most Inaccessible, the Most Sanctified".  

Here, in the Kitab-I panj sha`n the Bāb goes so far as to celebrate the apophatic `Otherness’ of God by forming the superlative of Allāh indicating the uttermost Godhead. The representatives of God are as “God” as far as humanity is concerned, but can never be considered the Ultimare Deity Who is wholly beyond every scriptural or human self-generated concept  of Deity.

Finally, among the other key theological paragraphs in the opening section of the Kitāb-i panj sha`n the following may be noted :

قل الله اله فوق كل ذی الهه لن يقدران يمتنع عن اليه الهان ائتلائه من احد لافی السموات ولا فی الارض ولا ما بينهم اانه كان الاها موءِتلها اليها هذا كتاب من الله الی من يظهره الله علی انه لا اله الا انا الموءِتله الالهان

Say: God is a Deity above every possessor of Divinity. It would prove impossible for anyone to compromise His transcendence abovethose Doubly Divine (al-ilāhān) among His divinized Ones, whether they be [located] in the heavens or upon the earth. Neither [would it be possible] for [those] betwixt these twain, for He, verily, hath ever been a Deity generating Godhead. This is a Book from God unto 'Him Whom God shall make Manifest' (man yuẓhiru-hu Allāh) [the Bābī messiah] for He, verily, no God is there except I-Myself, the Deity Generated among the Doubly Deified (al-ilāhān)”.

Speaking with the voice of God but not ontological identity the Bāb further states,

I, verily, I am God, no God is there except Me. It is impossible that anyone should befittingly love me. Thus, whoso desireth that he should love me [the Bāb], let him glorify 'Him whom God shall make manifest' on the Day of his Manifestation (ẓuhūr) for such is indeed the Path of the True One (ṣirat al-ḥaqq) which is Beauteous, Beautiful. I, verily, am God, no God is there except Me.

In the above, again (loosely translated) deeply theological extract from the opening page of the Kitāb-i Panj Sha`n (I/1), the Bābi messiah is associated with the Godhead, the Supreme Deity whom He perfectly represents on the eschatological Day of God. When the Bāb composed the Kitāb-i Panj Sha`n messianism was very central to his thought. He thus asked the reader to show his love for him by glofifying 'Him who God shall make manifest' (KPS I/1). References to the future advent of the Bābī messiah ‘Him who God shall make manifest’ (man yuẓhiru-hu Allāh) are scattered throughout the Kitāb-i Panj Sha`n as in other of his latest works such as his Haykal al-Dīn (The Temple of Religion) (1850 CE).

 Deeply theological passages scattered throughout the writings of the Bāb have him claim a direct though subordinate or `de-transcendentalized’ Deity or Divinity. Such a claim he also accorded his divine successor 'Him who God shall make manifest' whom Mīrzā Ḥusayn `Alī Nūrī, Baha’u’llah claimed to be. Both the Bāb and Baha’u’llāh frequently claimed Divinity though they never compromised the apophatic unknowability of the Ultimate Godhead.


 As with Bābī scripture the Bahā'ī texts are strictly monotheistic; or rather super-monotheistic. The doctrine of the Divine Oneness (tawḥīd) is uncompromisingly upheld; there is no place for anthropomorphism (ascribing God a body or corporeal characteristics), anthropopathism (ascribing human emotions to God), pantheism (seeing God as everything or ontologically everywhere) or any unio mystica with the Unknowable Godhead. On one level Baha'-Allah understood tawḥīd ("The Oneness of God") to singify the complete transcendence of God:

"Regard thou the one true God (ḥaqq) as One Who is apart from, and immeasurably exalted above, all created things. The whole universe reflecteth His glory, while He is Himself independent of, and transcendeth His creatures. This is the true meaning of Divine Unity (tawḥīd)." (GWB LXXXIV, p. 165)

This passage also indicates the truth of regarding the non-ontological relationship between God and the Manifestation of God as something unitative, something "One and the same" (ibid) as well as affirming the essential oneness of the divine Manifestations of God.

Lawḥ-i madīnat al-tawḥīd

Towards the beginning of his centrally important Lawḥ-i madānat al-tawḥīd ("Tablet of the City of the Divine oneness" c. 1868 CE) -- one of the cornerstones of any emergent Bahā’ī theology -- Baha'-Allah categorically and repeatedly asserts the transcendent incomprehensibility of the Godhead:

"Praise be to God, the All-Possessing, the King of incomparable glory, a [praise which is immeasurably above the understanding of all created things, and is exalted beyond the grasp of the minds of men. None else besides Him hath ever been able to sing adequately His praise, nor will any man succeed at any time in describing the full measure of His glory. Who is it that can claim to have attained the heights of His exalted Essence, and what mind can measure the depths of His unfathomable mystery?.. All the Embodiments of His Names wander in the wilderness of search, athirst and eager to discover His Essence, and all the Manifestations of His Attributes (maẓāhir al-sifāt) implore Him, from the Sinai of Holiness [sacred Mount] (ṭūr al-muqaddas), to unravel His mystery... So perfect and comprehensive is His creation that no mind nor heart, however keen or pure, can ever grasp the nature of the most insignificant of His creatures; much less fathom the mystery of Him Who is the Day Star of Truth, Who is the invisible and unknowable Essence. The conceptions of the devoutest of mystics, the attainments of the most accomplished amongst men, the highest praise which human tongue or pen can render are all the product of man's finite mind and are conditioned by its limitations. Ten thousand Prophets, each a Moses, are thunderstruck upon the Sinai of their search at His forbidding voice, "Thou shalt never behold Me!"; whilst a myriad Messengers, each as great as Jesus, stand dismayed upon their heavenly thrones by the interdiction, "Mine Essence thou shalt never apprehend!" From time immemorial He hath been veiled in the ineffable sanctity of His exalted Self, and will everlastingly continue to be wrapt in the impenetrable mystery of His unknowable Essence. Every attempt to attain to an understanding of His inaccessible Reality hath ended in complete bewilderment, and every effort to approach His exalted Self and envisage His Essence hath resulted in hopelessness and failure." (MAM: 307ff; trans. GWB:60f).

Having said this Bahā'-Allāh goes on to closely relate tawḥīd (the Divine "oneness", "unicity") to the "oneness" or essential unity of the Divine Manifestations of God.

In Bahā’ī theology God is reckoned supremely transcendent. He is beyond number, names and attributes. His "unity" is such as to be beyond numerical "oneness": (GWB:166-7 P&M : ADD)

"The Divine Reality is sanctified from singleness, then how much more from plurality" (SAQ:103)

The focus is not so much on the numerical "oneness" of a transcendent Deity who is really beyond unicity and multiplicity but upon a theology that highlights the oneness of religion as communicated by the Manifestations of God Who are considered "one" in their purpose and religion.


This Tablet is fully contained in INBMC 66:187-205 (partly cited in  MA 4:26-45). For a full annotated translation see Lambden, `A Tablet of Baha'-Allah explaining an utterance attributed to Mary the Jewess/Copt' (BSB forthcoming).

Lawḥ-i kull al-ṭa`ām ("Tablet of All Food")

Baha'-Allah's early Lawh-i kull al-ta`ām ("Tablet of All Food" c. 1854 CE) is basically a mystical commentary upon Qur'ān 3:87 which, he explains, has "subtle meanings infinite in their infinitude". Towards the beginning of this "tablet" the mystical significance of "food" (ṭa`ām) is related to the hierarchy of metaphysical realms well-known in theosophical Sufism and mentioned below (p.00). Following Islamic mystical cosmology, its author makes mention of the `arsh al-hāhūt ("the Throne of He-ness [Ipseity]") which is related to the "Paradise of the divine oneness" (jannat al-aḥadiyya).

Relative to this realm and the "paradise of the Divine Oneness", none -- not even Bahā'-Allāh himself -- can expound even a letter of Qur'ān 3:87. The realm of hāhūt is that of "the mystery of Endless Duration (sirr al-ṣamadāniyya), "Unique Sonship" (ibniyya al-aḥadaniyya), "Incomparable Israelicity" (Isrā'iliyyat al-firdāniyya) and "Resplendent Selfhood" (nafsāniyya al-lama`aniyya). Here, perhaps, are the unfathomable mysteries of Qur'ān 3:87 known only to God their "Creator and Lifegiver" whose esoteric and exoteric aspects are one and the same. [54]

The Seven Valleys (Haft vādī),  c. 1857-8 CE.

In the fourth of the Seven valleys, the `Valley of Unity' (vādī-yi tawḥīd) Bahā'-Allāh counters an anthropomorphic understanding of the experience of the Divine and underlines the Divine Transcendence and unknowability :

"However, let none construe these utterances to be anthropomorphism (ḥulūl), nor see in them the descent of the worlds of God into the grades of the creatures.. For God is, in His Essence (bi-dhātihi muqaddas), holy above ascent and descent, entrance and exit; He hath through all eternity been free of the attributes of human creatures (ṣifāt-i khalq), and ever will remain so. No man hath ever known Him; no soul hath ever found the path‑way to His Being. Every mystic knower (`urafā) hath wandered far astray in the valley of the knowledge (vādi ma`rifatish) of Him; every saint (awliyā) hath lost his way in seeking to comprehend His Essence (dhāt). Sanctified is He above the understanding (`irfān) of the wise (`ārif); exalted is He above the knowledge of the knowing! The way is barred and to seek it is impiety; His proof is His signs; His being is His evidence.

  Wherefore, the lovers of the face of the Beloved have said [words of Imām `Alī]: "O Thou, the One Whose Essence alone showeth the way to His Essence (dalla `alā dhātihi bi-dhātihi)", and Who is sanctified above any likeness to His creatures." How can utter nothingness gallop its steed in the field of preexistence, or a fleeting shadow reach to the everlasting sun? The Friend' hath said, "But for Thee, we had not known Thee," and the Beloved' hath said, "nor attained Thy presence" (Seven Valleys, 22-23). [55]

The Hidden Words (Kalimat-i maknūna) c. 1858 CE)

 The sixty-sixth Arabic Hidden Word (c. 1858) is addressed, in language reminiscent of the theological insights of the Persian Shi`ite Sufi `Abd al-Karīm al-Jīlī (Gilanī) to the  "children of the Divine and Indivisible Essence (al-huwiyya al-ghayb) [lit. “ the Occulted He-ness or Ipseity”]. Humanity is reminded of the incomprehensibility and inaccessibilitiy of the ultimate divinity:

Ye shall be hindered from loving Me, and souls shall be perturbed as they make mention of Me. For minds (al- aql) cannot grasp Me nor hearts (al-qulūb) contain Me.” (trans. Shoghi Effendi, 1975 ed., 20). [56]

The human relationship with God can be a bewildering and complex one. At times it is a relationship beyond the ken of the human mind (`al-aql) and the insight of the human heart (al-qalb). God can be as manifest as the glory of the noonday sun but His  brightness can blind and bedazzle the limited capacity of humankind. God is beyond and the wayfarer can but gaze indirectly, wrapt in awe and wonder.

The Ipseity (Divine Self-Identity) and the Tafsīr-i Hū’هو  [Huwa] (c. 1859?).

Bahā'u'llāh wrote a highly theosophical `Commentary on "He is"' (Tafsīr-i Hū [Huwa] c. 1859?) - evidently written soon after the `Hidden Words' (Kalimat-i Maknūna, c.1858 CE), one of which is cited and interpreted (Arabic no. 3). [57] It contains many interesting theological statements about the Divine Identity (huwa, "He-ness"), "Essence" (dhāt), Names (asmā') and Attributes (sifāt). It was largely written in explanation of a passage from a writing of the the Bāb (?) addressed to a "Mirror" (mirāt) of the Bābi dispensation (probably Mirzā Yahyā). The issue of the relationship of the "Mirror", the divine Names and Attributes, the "Most Beautiful Names" (al-asmā' al-usnā'), and the Divine Identity (Ar. huwa = "He is" Per.  Hū) is central.

It is indicated that the Manifestation of God is the locus of the Names and Attributes of God and the vehicle through which the Unknowable Essence -- Who is beyond the "Most Beautiful Names" (al-asmā' al-usnā') -- communicates with His creation. While the totality of the Divine "Names" (al-asmā') revolve around the "Divine Will" (mashiyyat) all the Divine "Attributes" (al-ifāt) are realized through His "Intention" (irada). Everything circumambulates the Divine and Unfathomable Essence (dhāt) who manifestation (tajallā) is realized through His major Prophets or Manifestations. The Bāb, among other things, is referred to as the "Fountainhead of His Essence" (manba` al-dhātihi) and the "Locus of His Activity" (`Source of His Action'; madar fi`lihi).

Bahā'-Allāh explains how the divinely revealed verse indicates that all the divine "Names" (al-asmā') are concentrated in the expression "all things" (kullu shay'; abjad = 19X19) which were subsequently compacted or limited within the divine name "He is" (huwa). In Arabic "He is" (huwa) is composed of the two letters "H" (hā') and "W" (wāw) which are indicative of its "inner" and "outer" dimesions respectivey. The inner dimension of the Divine Identity, Bahā'-Allāh adds, is expressed in the phrases "Hiddenness of the Ipseity" (ghayb al-huwiyya), "Interiority of the Divine Oneness" (sirr al-aadiyya) and the "Primordial, Pristine Divine Essence" (al-dhāt al-bata al-qamāma). When the hidden "H" is established upon "enthroned, eternal Temple" (al-haykal al`arshiyya al-azaliyya), "the Beauty of the Divine Ipseity" (jamāl al-huwiyya) is established in the "Luminous Temple" (haykal al-nuriyya) of the Manifestation of God. God made His name "He is" (huwa) the greatest of the divine designations for it is a "Mirror" (mirāt) of all the divine "Names" (al-asmā') and "Attributes" (al-ifā t).

Unlike the divine "Names" and "Attributes" whose manifestation accounts for all earthly and heavenly things, the Reality of the Divine Essence is not in its very Self (al-dhāt bi'l-dhātihi) manifested unto a single thing; neither is it grasped or comprehended by anything. It is guarded from the comprehension of God's creatures and immeasurably beyond the gnosis of His servants. Experiential knowledge of the Divine Essence (ma`rifat dhātihi) is impossible :

A good deal more could be said about Huwa Allāh هوالله  ("He is God") and related expressions and their  Bābī-Bahā’ī exegesis. Another significant example of the use of huwiyya (“He-ness”, “Ipseity”) and aniyya (“I-ness”) in Bahā’ī sacred writings, is the following opening portion of the a prayer of  the Bāb (or perhaps Baha’u’llāh?)  :






In the Name of God, the Single (al-fard), the Transcendent (al-mutta`āl), the All-Praiseworthy (al-ḥamīd).

The first Glory (bahā’) from the Beingness of the Divine Ipseity (kaynūniyya al-huwiyya) and the most ornamented Laudation (aṭraz al-thanā’) from the Pre-Eternal Essential Reality (dhātiyya al-azaliyya) and the Supreme Beauty of the  Elevated Reality (`allā’) from the Self-Identity (aniyya al-abadiyya) be upon Thee, O Thou Leaf of Camphor (al-warq al-kāfūr), Sinaitic Mount (shajarat al-Ṭūr) and Lote-Tree of the Divine Theophany (sidrat al-ẓuhūr)… “ [58]

`Abdu'l-Bahā' wrote a number of important explanations of huwa Allāh ("He is God") which term occurs a number of times in the Qur'ān (e.g. 28:70) and is very widely used in Islam as it is in Bābī-Bahā’ī sacred literatures. As in the Tafsīr-i Hū’ the explanation focuses around the doctrine of the unknowability of God. One scriptural Tablet written in reply to the question as to why "He is God" is written at the beginning of Bahā'ī sciptural Tablets (alwāḥ), begins by acknowledging its use in the orient and its being widely prefixed to sacred (Bābī and Bahā'ī) Tablets. The central Bahā’ī explanation is that it is indicative of incomprehensibility of the One, Divine Essence (haqīqat-i dhāt-i aḥadiyyat) which is beyond human conceptualization. In addition it indicates the "Beauty of the Promised One" Who is the "Sun of Reality" as the manifest Divinty (= Bahā'u'llāh) in allusion to whose name `Abdu'l-Bahā ' commences many of his writings (see Mā’ida IX: 22-3). The full translation of this Tablet of `Abdu’l-Baha to a wstern Bahā’ī  reads as follows:

"O Thou who art firm in the  Covenant!

Thou hast asked regarding the phrase "He is God!" written above the Tablets. By this Word it is intended that no one hath any access to the Invisible Essence. The way is barred and the road impassable. In this world all men must turn their faces toward "Him-whom-God-shall-Manifest." He is the "Dawning‑place of Divinity" and the "Manifestation of Deity." He is the "Ultimate Goal, and the "Adored One" of all and the "Worshipped One" of all. Otherwise, whatever flashes through the mind is not that Essence of essences and the Reality of realities; nay, rather, is it pure imagination woven by man and is surrounded, not the surrounding. Consequently, it returns finally to the realm of suppositions and conjectures." [59]

Human beings must turn indirectly to God through His Manifestation. The Ultimate Deity, the Essences of Essences, cannot be directly identified with.

Jawāhir al-asrār  ("The Essence of the Mysteries" c. 1277/ 1860-1).

Written in reply to a number of written questions about the expected Muslim messiah (the Mahdī) posed by Sayyid Yūsuf-i-Sidihī (Isfahānī) a year or so before the Kitāb-i īqān, Bahā'-Allāh's Jawāhir al-asrār ("The Essence of the Mysteries" c. 1277/1860-1) also touches upon the question of the transcendent unknowability of God. In part it is closely related to the Seven Valleys (Haft vādí c. 1275/1858) for the framework of the bulk of it's latter half (AQA 3:31-88) consists of a discussion of the "stations (maqāmāt) of the spiritual Path (as-sulúk) in the journey of the seeking servant unto his true spiritual goal" (See AQA: 31).

In the fourth stage which is the "City of the Divine Unity" (madānat al-tawhīd) there is a passage explaining that therein God never manifested in His own Being (kaynūniyya) or His Essential Reality (dhātiyya) for He was "eternally hidden in the ancient Eternity of His Essence" until He decided to send Messengers, to manifest His Beauty in the "Kingdom of Names". (AQA 3:40). The last of the seven mystic stages of the Jawāhir al-asrār  is a transcendent city without name or designation and unutterable (AQA 3: 86ff). Therein the "Sun of the Unseen" (shams al-ghayb) blazes forth from the "Horizon of the Unseen" (ufq al-ghayb). In it's universe are spheres with moons generated from Light which dawn forth and set in the "Ocean of the Unseen" (baḥr al-ghayb).  None but God and the "Manifestations of His Self" (maẓāhir nafsihi)   are aware of this realm and its recondite mysteries (AQA 3: 86ff).

 For Bahā’īs the Ultimate Divinity is the "He Who is the Creator of Names and Attributes (ADD)" (Gl:188) not One Whose Essence is identical with or directly defined by His Names or Attributes.

The Kitāb-i īqan ("Book of Certitude", c. 1861-2 CE)

Key theological passages in the Kitāb-i īqān ("Book of Certitude", 1862 CE) clearly maintain that "the door of the knowledge of the Ancient of Days" (= the Ultimate Godhead) is "closed in the face of all beings" (KI: ADD ).

In Bābī and Bahā’ī scripture the use of the Qur'ānic Divine attribute ṣamad (see above, 112:2) is fairly common. ADD HERE

Manifestation of God = "Self of God"

The Tablet in explanation of an alchemical statement attributed to Mary the Jewess (or Copt) (1st sent. CE?). c. 

The ADD same is indicated, for example, in the preface of an Epistle of Bahā'-Allāh expounding an alchemical statement attributed to Mary (Maria) the Jewess (or Copt; 1st sent. CE?). [60]

The Might of the Everlasting One (ṣamadāniyya = the Essence of God) is superlatively great! Nay rather, He is above everything great and supremely great. Greater is He than every Qā'im (Shi`i messianic "Ariser") and Qayyūm (messianic "[God] the Self-Subsisting One"). . . . Eternally was He, in the Oneness of His Essence, sanctified above even His Own Being. Everlastingly is He, in the Self-Subsistence of His Own Self, sanctified above the mention of aught besides Himself for He is the One Absolutely Pure (al-mutanazza) by virtue of His Transcendent Existence (bi-kaynuniyyat). Exalted is the depiction of the mere possibilities of the Singularity of His Essence above the characterization of the of created things. Sanctified is He by virtue of His Personal Identity ("I-ness" bi-āniyyā) from the befitting mention of the inhabitants of the earth and the heavens" (Text in INBMC 66:187-205 and in part in Ma'ida-yi asmani 4:26-45). [61]

The Manifestation of God so fully and perfectly represents the Godhead that they can be viewed as "one" as long as this does not indicate any incarnationalism or "descent" of the Divine Essence into the "person" of the Manifestation of God. In one of his Persian Tablets to the apostate Bahā’ī, Jamāl-i Burujirdi (d. c. 187X ), Bahā'-Allāh reckons "acceptable" (maqbāl) diverse perceptions of His claims as long as no contention results. Some Bahā’īs see no distiction between the "Person" (haykal) of the Manifestation of God and the Transcendent Godhead. Others see the Manifestation of God as essentially a divine theophany (zuhur Allāh) reckoning the directives of the Manifestation of God as truly divine in origin (Iqtidarāt, 218f; Fananapazir, 1991).

The Tablet on the Shī`ī form of the Delphic maxim

In a number of Tablets, Bahā'-Allāh has commented upon a the saying often attributed to Imām `Ali in Shi`i literatures:  "Whoso hath known himself hath known his Lord." This saying is an expanded version of the Delphic maxim ("Know thyself"). It is not understood to s-ignify that God Himself exists within any or all individuals in a pantheistic sense. ADD HERE

The Lawḥ-i bayt Sa`dī and nearness to God

While the doctrine of God's unknowability is the foundation of Bahā’ī theology that of the Messenger or Manifestation of God is its centerpiece. In His Essence God is unknowable. He becomes eminently knowable through his Great representatives or Prophets, the mazhar-i ilahi (Manifestations of God). There exists an important Tablet of Bahā'-Allāh in explanation of the following verse of the Persian poet Sa`di (d. c. 1292 CE):

"Wonder not if my Best-Beloved be closer to me than mine own self; wonder at this, that I, despite such nearness, should be so far from him." (GWB:184).

Bahā'-Allāh notes that Sa`di alludes to Qur'ān 50:16b. He interprets the poet to mean that the mystic depth of the human "heart" (spiritual self) is the "Throne" wherein the Divine theophany (tajallā-i rabbānā) may be experienced - the "revelation of the Best-Beloved" (tajallā mabāb). Forgetfulness of God and worldliness however, may - despite His Proximity - cause the Divine to be remote. Having interpreted this verse in this manner, Bahā'-Allāh explains that the transcendent Godhead is really beyond "proximity and remoteness". It is the relationship to the Manifestation of God which determines the level of "nearness to God."

The Lawḥ-i Ibn-i Dhi`b (“Epistle to the Son of the Wolf”), c.1891 CE.

"God in His Essence and in His Own Self hath ever been unseen, inacessible and unknowable." (ESW:118)

 See content  God of the Persians, liqā' Allāh Presence of God

The apophatic theology of `Abdu'l-Bahā' (1844-1921 CE).

Numerous written expository statments of a theological nature were made by Bahā'u'llāh's eldest son `Abbas entitled `Abdu'l-Bahā' (1844-19212). Asked to what extent man can comprehend God he explained that there are two kinds of knowledge 1) "knowledge of the esence of a thing (ma`rifat-i dhāt-i shay`)" and 2) "the knowledge of its qualities (ma`rifat-i if āt-i shay`)" (Mufawadāt.. 166 trans. SAQ 59/220). The former knowledge of the inner essence of anything is impossible though it can be known by virtue of its attributes. God can only be known indirectly through the Divine Attributes centered in the Manifestation of God: "it is certain that the Divine Reality (haqāqat-i rububiyyat) is unknown with regard to its essence (dhā t) and is known with regard to its attributres (sifāt)" (ibid 176 trans. SAQ 59/220-1).

In a scriptural Tablet to the Swiss entomologist Dr. Auguste Forel (d. 1931) Abd al-Baha'  reiterated the theological principle that God is beyond known attributes:

"As to the attributes (sifāt) and perfections (kamālāt) such as will (`intention' irādah) knowledge and power and other ancient attributes that we ascribe to that Divine Reality (haqiqat-i lāhātiyya), these are the signs that reflect the existence of beings in the visible plane and not the Absolute Perfection of the Divine Essence (haqiqat-i uluhiyya) that cannot be comprehended.. Thus we say His attributes are unknowable... The purpose is to show that these attributes and perfections that we recount for that Universal Reality (haqiqat-i kulliyya) are only in order to deny [negate] imperfections (salb-i-naqā'is), rather than to assert [affirm] perfections (thubut-i-kamālāt) that the human mind can conceive. Thus we say His attributes are unknowable." (Hosseini. 1989:14-15/101-2).

For AB the Divine Names and Attributes are posited of God not so as to prove the Divine perfections but in order to disprove imperfections being ascribed to Ultimate Divinity (SAQ XXXVII). On occasion echoed Islamic theological terminology and spoke of the separateness of the "attributes of the Essence" of Divinity:

"all that the human reality knows, discovers and understands and the names (asma'), the attributes (sifāt) and the perfections (kamālāt) of God refer to these Holy Manifestations (of God, mazāhir-i muqadassih). There is no access to anything else: "the way is barred and seeking forbidden."

... for the essential names and attributes of God (asmā' va ifāt dhātiyya ilāhiyya) are identical with His Essence (`ayn-i dhāt), and His Essence is above all comprehension... Accordingly all these names, praises and eulogies apply to the Places of Manifestation; and all that we imagine and suppose besides them is mere imagination, for we have no means of comprehending that which is invisible and inacessible.." (Mufawadāt, 113; SAQ 37/148-9).

In a Tablet to a western Bahā’ī `Abdu'l-Bahā' responded to the assertion of the "Impersonality of Divinity" by stating that the "Personality is in the Manifestation of the Divinity, not in the Essence of Divinity." (TAB 1:204).

The Lawḥ-i ism-i a`ẓam (Exposition of the Greatest Name of God”)

The graphic image of the Bahā’ī symbol enshrining its identification of the word Bahā’ with the al-ism al-a`ẓam, the Greatest or Mightiest Name of God. Bahā’ is viewed as its quintessence. This Arabic word or title Bahā’ indicates Bahā’u’llāh (or Bahā’-Allāh) the founder of the Bahā’ī religion or Faith. It indicates his  Divine Radiance for Bahā’ means, among a range of other things, radiant “Glory’, “Splendor” or “Beauty”, which qualities are believed to be personified in the person of Bahā’-Allāh (“The Splendor of God”). The above, Bahā’ī graphic, symbolic representation of the Greatest Name includes a universal fourfold spelling of three of the four letters which constitute the word Bahā’ (B+H+A). This  symbol has been explained in detail by `Abdu’l-Bahā’ such that its three horizontal lines (= from the base lines of the Arabic-Persian letters B) indicate three worlds. The region above the highest third line represents the realm of the Godhead, the unknowable Divinity. The second zone above the second line represents the world of the maẓhar-i ilāhī, the Manifestatuion of God which is absolutely distinct from the indefinable, apophatic world of the Essence of the Gopdhead. The third lower zome (above line one and below line two) is that of the realm of humanity and of creation which is separate from that the the Manifestation of God. It is the Baha’I belief that human beings can never become exalted Manifestations of God just as exalted Manifestation of God can never claim ultimate Divinity. The three zones or symbolic worlds are entirely distinct though they are related as indicated by the vertical stroke or line which is again the base line of another Arabic-Persian letter B (      ).

Some Theological Clarifications of Shoghi Effendi Rabbānī (c. 1896-1957)

For Bahā’īs Shoghi Effendi (c. 1896-1957) the great-grandson of Bahā'u'llah and head of the Bahā’ī religion for thirty six years, communicated authoratative expositions of Bahā’ī doctrine. In his compilation of selected English language translations from scriptural Tablets (alwāh) of the Founder of the Bahā’ī Faith entitled, Gleanings from the Writings of Bahā'u'llāh (1st ed. 1949?) he placed at the opening of this volume a lengthy extract addressed to a certain Aqā Muammad asan expressive of the human incomprehensibility of the ultimate Godhead (see GWB I:3ff).

Among the most important works of Shoghi Effendi is his The Dispensation of Bahā'u'llāh (1937). Therein the authoratative Bahā’ī view of station of the central figures of the Bahā'í Faith is lucidly set out. Anthropomorphism, incarnationalism and pantheism are rejcted in the light of the Divine transcendence and unknowability. Though a divine Being and a complete "incarnation of the Names and Attributes of God" Bahā'u'llāh should "ever remain entirely distinguished from the Ultimate Godhead -- that "invisible yet rational God Who, however much we extol the divinity of His Manifestations on earth, can in no wise incarnate His infinite, His unknowable, His incorruptible and all-embracing Reality in the concrete and limited frame of a mortal being" (Shoghi Effendi, DB: 22-23).

The opinion of Shoghi Effendi touching upon the Bahā’ī teaching about the unknowability of God is indirectly expressed in a letter of 1929. It seems to be partly inspired by his grandfather `Abdu’l-Baha’s explanation of the ‘Greatest Name of God’ (as Bahā’, see above). He states that `Abdu'l-Bahā is said to have made a distinction between the standpoint of the gnostics (`urafā’) and the religionists. It is stated that,

"`Abdu'l-Bahā says that the main difference between the gnostics and the religionists is that the gnostics maintain the existence of only two worlds, the world of God and the world of the creature. The prophets however, maintained the existence of three worlds [1] the world of God, [2] the world of the Will or the Word, and [3] the world of created things. The prophets, therefore, maintained that a knowledge of God is impossible. As `Abdu'l-Bahā says man can never know God or even imagine Him. If he does that object is not God but an imaginary idol." (cited Hornby, Lights 1724).

Clarifying a fundamental aspect of Bahā’ī theology Shoghi Effendi also states in this work that Bahā'u'llāh should be regarded as no more than a Manifestation of God, "never to be identified with that invisible Reality, the Essence of Divinity itself." This he remarks is "one of the major beliefs of our Faith" which should neither be obscured nor compromised.

Shoghi Effendi did not, however, maintain that the Bahā’ī negative theology outrules a personal relationship with the Godhead through His Manifestation or Messenger. He thus spoke of an unknowable yet personal God ( ). In 1939 he wrote a letter explaining that the Bahā’ī notion of a "personal God" and rules out God being considered "an unconscious and determined force operating in the universe" as some scientists and materialists imagine. The "personal God" is not an anthropomorphic Deity but a Godhead "beyond human comprehension" Who, having a "Mind," "Will" and "Purpose", is "conscious of His creation". [62]  God, it appears is "personal" by virtue of His Messenger through whom the divine providence is operative though the ultimate Godhead is beyond Names and Attributes and "suprapersonal" in terms of His Essence.

 "What is meant by personal God is a God Who is conscious of His creation, Who has a Mind, a Will, a Purpose, and not, as many scientists and materialists believe, an unconscious and determined force operating in the universe. Such conception of the Divine Being, as the Supreme and ever present Reality in the world, is not anthropomorphic, for it transcends all human limitations and forms, and does by no means attempt to define the essence of Divinity which is obviously beyond any human comprehension. To say that God is a personal Reality does not mean that He has a physical form, or does in any way resemble a human being. To entertain such belief would be sheer blasphemy" (From a letter written on behalf of Shoghi Effendi to an individual believer, April 21, 1939 cited Hornby 1983:477 No 1574).


A Jewish writer has wisely observed that the "via negativa is only a negation of religion for those of limited vision". Indeed, God can be adored and worshipped in His transcencdence. His very sublime and lofty unknowability is a cause of mystic religious feeling not an obscure vacuity. Awe before the Divine in a state of humble `unknowing' can be a profound mystical experience -- not born out of ignorance or anti-intellectualism but out of an openess to the Sublime.

The Dionysian divinization of the soul in the path of transcendence and unknowing is not a mystical path that can be followed by Bahā’īs. Bahā’īs can, however, supplicate God with words in the sixth Valley of Astonishment of the Seven Valleys, of Bahā'-Allāh "O Lord increase my astonishment at Thee!" (SV:34) and experience the profound mysteriousness of the Ultimate Divinity and His Manifestation Who is also a "Beauty" veiled in oceans of Light.

Burrell in his comparative study Knowing the Unknowable God.. (1986) argues that the received doctrine of God in the West was "an intercultural, interfaith achievement" -- Ibn Sina influenced Maimonides, and both influenced Aquinas.

Michael Sells begins his article `Apophasis in Plotinus' (Harvard Theological Rreview 78 [1985] 47-65) by asking "Is apophasis dead? Can there be a contemporary apophatic theology, or critical method, or approach to comparative religion and interreligious dialogue? If such approaches are possible, then a resource of virtually unfathomable richness lies largely untapped. I suggest that apophasis has much to offer contemporary thought and that, in turn, classical apophasis can be critically reevaluated from the perspective of contemporary concerns." Bahā'ī philosophers and theologians might be well advised to tale up Sells' focus on apophasis.

Baha'i apophatic theology clearly and in very many places exists in Babi-Bahā’ī scripture. It is centrally important. It's truth can be a pathway within interreligious dialogue and many religionists can embrace in the light of their sacred scripture. All can affirm the concept of the Ultimate Being as mysterious and Unfathomable. Analysis of the theological implications of apophatic theology can be philosophically enriching and and help in the pathway of religious ecumenism. It is a source of deep theological-philosophical insight. Apophasis as unknowing can be experienced by the Bahā'ī who seeks the God whose door is ever closed though ever open. Through the Manifestation of God the door to divine knowledge is eternally open. Yet mystical bewilderment before the Divine is an experience of unknowing: "To merit the madness of love man must abound in sanity". To approach the All-Knowing human beings must be full of the ecstasy of unknowing; spiritual excitement before the Ultimate Deity.


Select Bibliography

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Maimonides, Moses

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Māzandaranī, Mirza Muhammad.  Fāḍil-i

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Ware, Kallistos (Timothy)

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Wolfson, Harry A.

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Appendix  Fazlur Rahman citation  Islam 2

 "On the basis of the Plotinian idea of the ultimate ground of Reality the One of Plotinus, as interpreted by his followers and endowed with a mind that contained the essences of all things, the philosophers re‑interpreted and elaborated the Mu`tazilite doctrine of the Unity of God. According to the new doctrine, God was represented as Pure Being without essence or attributes, His only attribute being necessary existence. The attributes of the Deity were declared to be either nega‑tions or purely external relations, not affecting His Being and re‑ducible to His necessary existence. God's knowledge was thus defined as `non-absence of knowable things from Him'; His Will as `impossibility of constraint upon His Being'; His creative activity as `emanation of things from Him', etc. in the framework of the Greek theories of Aristotle and Plotinus, it was impossible that God should know particulars: He could cognize only universals since a cognition of the particular would introduce change in the Divine Mind both in the sense of a temporal succession and a change of different objects. But this theory could hardly be accepted by any religion for which a direct relationship between the individual and the Deity forms the core of interest. Accordingly, Avicenna devised a clever theory which would do justice both to the demands of religion and the requisites of his philo‑sophy. God, according to this theory, knew all the particulars since He, being the ultimate cause of all things, necessarily knew the whole causal process. Thus, God knew from eternity that, for example, a solar eclipse would occur, with all its particular characteristics, at a particular point of the causal process This type of knowledge would require no change in the Divine knowledge since it removes the necessity of perceptual knowledge which occurs at a definite time and place.  NOTE LATER DOCTRINES OF SOUL -- VIP




Omissions ??

XX= I follow here the translation of Chodkiewicz, 1993:97 referring to various passages in Ibn `Arabī's al-Futuḥāt al-makiyya.

XX = That passage from the Dawn Prayer of Imam `Alī on which the Bāb commented is cited here. It has influenced many passages in Bābī-Bahā'ī scripture. Here is an example from a meditation of Bahā'-Allāh, "From eternity Thou didst Thyself describe Thine own Self unto Thy Self, and extol, in Thine own Essence, Thine Essence unto Thine Essence. I swear by Thy glory, O my Best-Belovedl Who is there besides Thee that can claim to know Thee, and who save Thyself can make fitting mention of Thee? Thou art He Who, from eternity, abode in His realm, in the glory of His transcendent unity and the splendours of His holy grandeur." (P&M trans. No 184/252).

[1] Revised and supplemented  2011-12 from the1997 publication as 'The Background and centrality of Apophatic Theology in Bābī and Baha'i Sacred Scripture' in Jack MacLean ed. Revisioning the Sacred, New Perspectives on a Baha'i Theology ( = Studies in the Bābí and Bahā'í Religions, Vol. 8), pp. 37-78. Los Angeles: Kalimat Press, 1997. ISBN 0-933770-95-2 (HBk) ISBN 0-933770-96-0 (PBk) and the old incomplete online beta  version  at :   http://www.hurqalya.pwp.blueyonder.co.uk/03-Biblical-islam-BBst/APOPHATIC%20THEOLOGY.htm  This latter URL will shortly be replaced by my updated Hurqalya website located at UC-Merced. This essay was originally published in Jack McLean (ed.), Revisioning the Sacred (Los Angeles: Kalimat Press, 1997), 37-78. This Web version adds a few extra details and notes and puts the essay into more academic format with occasional Arabic and Persian texts added.


            [2] See V. Kesich, `Via Negativa,’ in M. Eliade et al., ed. The Encyclopedia of Religion (New York: Macmillan Pub. Co., 1987), p.253ff. 

            [3] The Greek rooted theological terms `apophatic' ("negative") and `cataphatic' ("positive") have been used  indicate a theology early articulated in the pre-Islamic medieval Christian world by Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite (fl. c. 500 CE) (see below).

            [4] In the Bābī and Bahā’ī religions the (Per. ) maẓhar-i ilāhī (Manifestation of God) is the chosen human yet divine figure who acts as an intermediary between the unknowable Godhead and humankind.

                [5] The Hebrew Bible citations below are all taken  from the   Biblia Hebraica Stuttgartensia : With Westminster Hebrew Morphology. 1996 (electronic ed.) (Is 6:3).  Stuttgart; Glenside PA: German Bible Society; Westminster Seminary.


            [6] The Van Dyck Arabic here has : وقال قدوس قدوس قدوس رب الجنود مجده ملء كل الارض  “And he (one of the seraphim] said, “Holy, Holy, Holy (quddus, quddūs, quddūs) is the Lord of Hosts (rabb al-junūd).His glory (majd) fills all the earth” (transl. Lambden). .

[7]  The Authorized Version (King James) of the Bible  translates this Hebrew word “as “thick darkness” eight times, “darkness” three times, “gross darkness” twice, “dark cloud” once, and “dark” once.”.

            [8] The meaning(s) or etymologies which Philo sometimes gives to Hebrew words often tell us more about his allegorical intention than anything philologically exact. Both the meaning and location of Sinai are uncertain or unknown. There is no evidence that Sinai means "inaccessible".   

            [9] In his book on Gregory of Nyssa, Meredith writes: “This tendency towards what came to be called apophaticism, received great impulse from the writings of the first century AD Jew, Philo, whose elaborate, allegorical commentary on Genesis insisted that God was incomprehensible.” See his Gregory of Nyssa p. 11 (fn.23) referring to Philo On the Posterity and Exile of Cain, 169 and Clement of Alexandria, Stromateis, 5.17.83.

            [10] According to Acts 17:23 Paul referred to an altar with the inscription agnōstō theō (“To the unknown God”) though it is unlikely that this is a reference to  the unknown God spoken about in various Gnostic and other writings (see Norden, Angostoc Theou, Leipzig, 1913; T. Rajak, “The Unknown God” in JJS 29 (1978), 20-29).

            [11] Martin Laird in his 1994 Gregory of Nyssa and the Grasp of Faith: Union, Knowledge, and Divine Presence (see bib.) here references (see p. 156 fn.10) Gregory of Nyssa’s In Cant. 85. 20–86.1

            [12] Another seemingly early Christian reference to the “incomprehensibility of God” as One who "comprehendeth all things" being Himself "incomprehensible" has been registered by some as found in the `First Commandment’ or `Mandate’ of The Shepherd of Hermas (c. 140 CE?). This writing, however,  probably actually indicates that God is One Who “contains everything” being Himself One Who “alone is not contained”. (see trans. Carolyn Osiek, The Shepherd of Hermas (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1992, p.105).  

                [13] Clement of Alexandria, Stromata [Miscellanies] VI.5, Text and English translation “modified slightly from those of M. R. James [The Apocryphal New Testament (Oxford: Clarendon Press 1924), pp. 16-19] and Philip Schaff (1819-1893), in Ante-Nicene Fathers vol. II (Fathers of the Second Century, 1885) Vol. II (Cf.  also Hennecke, New Testament Apocrypha  II ( trans Schneemelcher 1965), 99  and Eliade et al. eds. Encyclopedia of Religion VI:19) : http://www.textexcavation.com/preachingpeter.html


            [14] Note also the possible influence of the early 5th c. BCE Parmenides of Elea (c. 515-450 BCE) on later Neo-Platonic, Christian and subsequently Islamic apophatic theological concepts as well as relative to the doctrines  of  divine hypotheses or emanations / manifestations from God:  "We have seen the importance for late Neoplatonism of the interpretation of the successive hypotheses of the second part of the Parmenides: the first hypothesis yields the One of whom nothing at all can be said, the succeeding hypotheses yield manifestations of the divine of whom something can be said. There is a neat distinction between apophatic theology (that is, theology of denial) and cataphatic theology (that is, theology of affirmation): apophatic theology applies to the One, cataphatic theology to the henads and other divine manifestations of the One." (Louth, 1989: 87).

            [15] These include most importantly Basil the Great (330-379CE), bishop of Caesarea; his brother Gregory of Nyssa (c.330-395), bishop of Nyssa  and their close associate Gregory of Nazianzus (329-389) who became Patriarch of Constantinople.

            [16] I have taken these translations from `Dionysius the Areopagite, Works (1897) pp.1-127. The Divine Names’ text transcribed by Roger Pearse (Ipswich, UK, 2004), http://www.tertullian.org/fathers/areopagite_03_divine_names.htm#2


            [17] These terms or the concepts implied by them were earlier used by Proclus (412-485 CE) in a quasi-theological context. Wolfson opens his 1957 paper as follows, "By the time the Fathers of the Church began to offer negation as a solution to the problem of divine attributes, the theory of negative attributes had already been dealt with by Philo, Albinus and Plotinus" (p. 145).

            [18] As cited in  Baha’u’llah, Athar-I qalam-i a`lā III:15 , trans Baha’u’llah,  Seven Valleys, 15.

            [19] The full form of this ḥadīth qudsī (Sacrosanct of Divine Utterance) 

            [20] Nahj al-balagha ADD

            [21] See al--Kulayni's al-Kafi 5th ed. 'Ali Akbar al-Ghaffari ed. 8 vols. Tehran,1363Sh/1987. Al-Kafī is viewed as one of the four major collections of Shi'i traditions containing something like 16,199 narrations. Several sometimes extensive commentaries have been written upon it including the Mir'at al-'uqul fi sharh akhbar al al-rasul by Muhammad Baqir al-Majlisi (d. 1110/1698) and others by Muhammad Baqir b. Damad (d. 1040/1630), Mulla Sadr al-Din al-Shirazi (d. 1050/1640), al-Qazwini (d. 1089/1678) and al-Mazandarani (d. 1080/1699),

[22] DONE

            [23] As  William Chittick  has pointed out this is most likely a reference to the ḥadīth “Meditate on all things but do not meditate on the Essence of God” (cited in trans. The Meccan Revelations vol.1: 238; see further for some excellent relevant translations and notes on theological subjects from the al-Futūḥāt of Ibn al-`Arabī ibid., pp. 45ff; 238ff).   

            [24] See the select items under Ibn al-`Arabī in the bibliography.

            [25] ADD HERE

            [26] See Corbin adds a explanatory note about the “four spheres” in his  Creative Imagination [in Alone with the Alone],  367 fn.42. He states, “

            [27] Arabic huwiyya is an abstract word that was originally "coined in order to express in Arabic the nuances of Greek philosophy" (Goichon, `Huwiyya' EI2 III: 644). It occurs in the so-called `Theology of Aristotle', Ibn Sinā and in many later ADDDD

            [28] In Islamic and Bābī-Bahā’ī literatures these realms or spheres are variously described in accordance with pre-modern cosmological theories.

            [29] This is graphically represented in the Bahā’ī ringstone symbol of the al-ism al-a`ẓam (Greatetst Name) which has three tiers or divisions.


            [33] Sunan ibn Majah, Vol.1 p. 70. 

            [34] See D.B. Burrell, `The Unknowability of God in al-Ghazali'  Religious Studies 23 (1987/8) 171-182, p.179f Cf. `Knowing the Unknowable God: Ibn-Sina, Maimonides, Aquinas. Notre     Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1987.

            [35]  This tradition or a Shī`ī version of it has been cited and commented upon by both the Bāb and Bahā'-Allāh. ADD

                [36]  In  XXXX  W.H.T. Gairdner trans. we read, “What is the signification of the tradition, "Allâh hath Seventy Thousand Veils of Light and Darkness: were He to withdraw their curtain, then would the splendours of His Aspect surely consume everyone who apprehended Him with his sight." (Some read "seven hundred veils;" others, "seventy thousand.")” (19XX:157). On this hadith see Morris, James Winston (2005). The Reflective Heart: Discovering Spiritual Intelligence in 'Ibn Arabi's Meccan Illuminations. Louisville: Fons Vitae. pp.115. CHECK

            [37] I have largely cited the translation of Chittick with a few adaptions inserted transliterations. This translator also usefully notes p.XX. Fn. 47  “ This hadith is not found in this form in the collections indexed in the Concordance; the closest hadith to it reads, "God does not sleep, nor would it be seemly for Him to sleep; .. His veil is light; were it to be removed, the Glories of His Face would burn away every creature whose eyes looked upon Him" (Muslim, Iman 293; Ibn Maja, Muqaddima 13). References to the present text of the hadith in the Futūḥat include II 80.34, 460.7, 488.10, 542.3, 554.9; III 216.18, 289,.2  CHECK HERE. Add Morriss

[38] Kitāb al-Mawḍū`āt, ed. `Abd al-Raḥman Muhammad `Uthmān, Medina: The Salafiyya Press, 1386-8/1966-68. Vol. 1:166 ( some– 2 vol. ed??).

[39] Tafsīr `Alī ibn Ibrahīm al-Qummī cited Tafsīr al-Thaqalayn  as in URL : http://alhikmeh.net/main/library_html/quran/thagalen01/05.htm


            [40] It is noted in the 2nd edition of the BIḥār vol. 58:43 (fn.2) that this spontaneous supererogatory supplication cannot be traced further back (?).

            [41] Within the writings of the Bab, the Islamic Basmala is frequently found and many times exponded. It prefixes many of his early writings and occurs thousands of times subsequently in newly created versions. 


            [42] What is meant by the  حروف الواحد  the `Letters of the Unity' (ḥurūf al-wāḥid)  is  not immediately obvious. It may simply allude to those persons who make up the nineteen strong  Bābī Wāḥid (Unity), namely the Bāb and his first disciples,  the eighteen `Letters of the Living'. If the ḥurūf al-wāḥid, (`Letters of the Unity') are in some sense those implied in the new, doubly apophatic, nineteen letter basmala spelled out in Arabic Bayān  III:11 (= بسم الله الامنع الاقدس ) then, relative to the Islamic basmala, the matter may well be rather more complicated. 

            [43] The Du`a-yi Ṣaḥīfa (The Supplication[s] of the Scroll-Treatise) is also known as the  Ṣaḥīfa-yi Makhzūna ("The Treasured Scroll") and Ṣaḥīfa Ḥujjatiyya ("The Scroll of the Proof").  These titles all describe the same extended devotional compilation consisting of fourteen du`as, "supplications" or "prayers". Both the the Kitab al-fihrist (1845) (The Book of the Index) and the Khuṭba Dhikriyya (1846) (Sermon of the Dhikr-Remembrance) within the Ṣaḥīfa al-Raḍawiyya of the Bāb, give  it the messianic and imamologically suggestive title Ṣaḥīfa al-Ḥujjatiyya, ("The Scroll of the Proof"). Thid titlle may be related to the messianic Hujjat or "Proof" as the Promised Shi`i Messiah or twelfth Imam is known in numerous traditions and related sources.

            [44] Trans. Stephen Lambden 2010 from an unpublished, apparently uncataloged manuscript.

            [45] Tafsir sūrat al-Ḥamd   ADD

            [46] The Du`a al-sabāḥ cannot be found, for example, in al-Qummī, Mafatīḥ.. 91-94. Clarification of a phrase within it was requested of the Bāb by a certain Mīrzā Muhammad `Alī, the Guilder. The text of the Tafsīr Du`a al-ṣabaḥ of the Bāb can be found, for example, in INBMC 40:155-162. 

            [47] That passage from the Dawn Prayer of Imam `Alī on which the Bāb commented is cited here. It has influenced many passages in Bābī-Bahā'ī scripture. Here is an example from a meditation of Bahā'-Allāh,  "From eternity Thou didst Thyself describe Thine own Self unto Thy Self, and extol, in Thine own Essence, Thine Essence unto Thine Essence. I swear by Thy glory, O my Best-Belovedl Who is there besides Thee that can claim to know Thee, and who save Thyself can make fitting mention of Thee? Thou art He Who, from eternity, abode in His realm, in the glory of His transcendent unity and the splendours of His holy grandeur." (P&M trans. No 184/252).

            [48]  This ḥadīth is found in a variety of forms in a number of Sunnī and Shī`ī sources. The word `amā'  ("loosely "Cloud") has been variously translated and interpreted. For some details see Lambden, 1984.

            [49] This letter of the Bāb is contained in TBAMS 6007C:1-16. It was apparently written in reply to questions posed by Siyyid Yaḥyā Dārābī, Vaḥīd (a leading disciple of the Bāb; see Fāḍil-i Mazandaranī, Asrār al-athār,  4:391 (text also partially quoted here).

  •  [50] Various modes of the Divine theophany (tajallī)  are mentioned in Sufi treatises; i.e. (1) tajallī al-dhāt  (`the theophany of the Divine Essence'); (2) tajallī al-ṣifāt  (`the theophany of the Divine Attributes') and (3) tajallī al-af``āl  (`the theophany of the Divine Actions'). See for example, Shihāb al-Dīn `Umar al-Suhrawardī, `Awārif al-ma`ārif  (Per. trans, Mahmūd ibn `Alī al-Kāshānī) translated into English by H. Wilberforce Clarke (1891; reprint ed. Octagon Press London 1980), p. 79ff.
  •  [51] The Kitāb-i Panj Sha`n (= KPS) (The Book of the Five Modes [ or Grades]) is a fairly lengthy major work of the Bāb largely written largely in Arabic but with s As is well-known, the Bāb divided his writings into categories, modes, grades or types (sha`n, pl. shu`ūn). He often spoke of a five-fold division (cf. the word Bāb has an abjad numerical value of 5) which, though it sometimes varies a little, often includes the following categories of revealed verses :   (1) Āyāt = Qur’anic style verses;  (2) Munājāt = Devotional pieces, prayers, supplications;  (3) Khuṭbah = Sermons, Orations, Homilies  or  alternatively, Suwar-i `ilmiyya = "Surahs expressive of divine knowledge”;  (4) Tafāsīr [sing. Tafsīr] = “ Scriptural Commentaries”, and (5) Fārsī = Persian language revelations.
  •  [52] In his Kitab-i Iqan (c. 1861 CE) page 196 Baha’u’llah states, “Were any of the all-embracing Manifestations of God to declare: “I am God!” He verily speaketh the truth, and no doubt attacheth thereto. For it hath been repeatedly demonstrated that through their Revelation, their attributes and names, the Revelation of God, His name and His attributes, are made manifest in the world.”
  •  [53] As the famous British historian Edward Gibbon (1737-1794) pointed out, it is but the smallest Greek letter iota (= Ιώτα = ι in small case) markedin red above cf. the Hebrew letter yod) which differentiates various Christological positions that caused Christian communities to experience considerable theological confusion and disunity (see ADD). Nicene Christians came to believe that Jesus or Christ the Son was “one” in substance with God the Father; a proposition that Muslims Baha’is and others could never explicitly countenance. 
  •  [55] See  Bahā'u’llāh, Athar-i Qalam-i A'ta, vol. 3 (New Delhi: Bahā’ī Publishing Trust, n.d.) pp. 114-15; The Seven Valleys and The Four Valleys, trans. by 'Ali Kuli Khan assisted by Marzieh Gail (Wilmette, Ill.: Baha'I Publishing Trust, 1978) pp. 22-23.
  •  [56] The Hidden Words, trans. by Shoghi Effendi  (London: Baha'I Publishing Trust, 1975) p. 20.
  •  [57] This Tablet is listed by Shoghi Effendi in his list of `Bahā'u'llāh's Best-Known Writings'. It is noted that it was "revealed in Baghdad" (see BW XVIII:833-834). As far as I am aware it has not been published. I have relied on a typed Arabic copy supplied to me in 198? by the Bahā’ī  World Centre, Haifa, Israel.
  •  [58] From a poem contained in PUL 3rd series ms. No., 46,   `Adiyya Bābiyya, fol. 15a. Trans. Stephen Lambden. 


 [60] This Tablet is fully contained in INBMC 66:187-205 (partly cited in MA 4:26-45). For a full annotated translation see Lambden, `A Tablet of Baha'-Allah explaining an utterance attributed to Mary the Jewess/Copt' (BSB forthcoming).