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Apophatic Horizon or Theophanic Cloud? Some thoughts on the term `Amā' ...


Apophatic Horizon or Theophanic Cloud?

Some thoughts on the term `Amā' in  Abrahamic-Islamic Literatures and Babi-Baha'i Intertextualities. Notes from ongoing Oxford version dating to 28-6-2018. PDf. August 2018+ slightly updated 26-02-2021.

Stephen Lambden UC Merced.

IN PRORESS - Last updated 15-07-2018.

This is a set of notes dating back to the early 1980s and now being gradually revised and extended. They were last revised and presented (with the above title) at an Oxford University located Shaykhi, Babi-Baha'i Studies Seminar -see Programme here :

After studying Persian translation for a short while at the University of Durham (NE England) in the early 1980s,  I attempted to translate the 19 or so line Rashh-i `amā’ of Baha’-Allah (d. Acre, Palestine, 1892), the founder of the Baha'i religion. As a result, more than 30 year ago, I wrote an over 100 page  article on this subject with an extended supplementary appendix on the term عَمَاء in select Islamic and Bābī-Bahā’ī literatures (see Lambden, BSB 3:2 September 1984, pp. 4-114 and see further the updated version on the Baha'-Allah page of this website). The paragraphs that follow, supplement and extend aspects of this 1984 paper with further attention to the Islamo-Biblical background, the Islamic and Persianate commentaries on the so-called `Hadith of `Amā'', and further unstudied aspects of this subject in Babi-Baha'i primary sources (not set forth in 1984).

Set down below, are select Bābī-Bahā’ī uses of عماء `amā’ which will be compared with certain of their Abrahamic, Islamic theological or intertextual backgrounds. It will be demonstrated that in the Babi-Baha’I sacred writings these intertextualities came to register new messianic, apophatic and other dimensions of `amā’ within the vast Persian and Arabic writings of Sayyid `Alī Muhammad Shirazī, the Bāb (d. Tabriz, 1850 CE) and Mirza Ḥusayn `Alī Nūrī, Baha’u’llah (d. Acre, 1892 CE). Much work remains to be done on the multifarious influences of Biblical and Islamic texts and traditions on the nascent, closely interrelated  Bābī and Bahā’ī religions which have their genesis in Imamī Shī`ī Qajar Iran and key locations - Baghdad, Istanbul, Edirne and Palestine – Acre, Haifa - within the 19th century Ottoman dominions.

The Arabic word عماء `amā’.

Tradition has it that the Prophet Muhammad was asked, `Where was our Lord before He created the creation?' He is said to have replied:

قال : كان في عماء ما تحته هواء وما فوقه هواء وخلق عرشه على الماء

He [the Prophet Muhammad] said, `He [God] was in عَمَاء ('amā' , a "Cloud") above it [or Him] Air (hawā') and below it [or Him] Air [hawā'), then He created His Throne (`arsh) upon the Watery Expanse (al-ma')'.

The `amā’ (loosely, "cloud") motif (as we shall see) is rooted in a prophetic ḥadīth text recorded in Sunni and a few later Shī`ī sources, a version of which is cited above. It became especially influential due to the massive influence of Ibn al-`Arabī and various of his numerous disciples. Anong the earliet recordings of versions of the  `ḥadith al-`amā’ are those allegedly transmitted from the Prophet Muhammad by 7-8th century ( and later) Muslims found in early Sunni hadith collections and, for example, in the massive and weighty Tafsir (Qur'an Commentary) and Tarikh (Universal History) volumes  of Abu Ja`far Muhammad Ibn Jarīr al-Ṭabarī (d. 310/923), an authority greatly respected in both Sunni and many Shi`i sources. 

The Arabic word or verbal noun  عماء  'amā'  (loosely, "cloud") is derived from the triliteral root `-m-y which has a range of senses including,


The `Hadith al-`amā’ in early Sunni Hadith Sources.

Among the early, 3rd/9th century Sunni Hadith sources registering the `Hadīth of al-`amā’ are the following three collections (in loose chronological order), the Musnad of Ahmad ibn Hanbal (d. Baghdad 241/855), the Sunan of Ibn Majah (d. 272/887) and the Sunan of al-Tirmidhi (279/892). This tradition is not found in the extensive canonical Hadith compilations of Isma'il al-Bukhari (       ) or  Muslim (        ) or in the other (traditionally, loosely six) canonical collections of

The text in the Musnad of Ahmad ibn Hanbal (d. Baghdad 241/855),

The text in the Sunan of Ibn Majah (d. 272/887)

The text in the Sunan of al-Tirmidhi (279/892).

The Transmission of the text(s) from the Prophet.




Muhammad Ibn Jarīr al-Ṭabarī and the `Hadīth of al-`amā’.

This `Hadīth of al-`amā’ was regarded as "especially sound" by the Persian born  Muhammad Ibn Jarīr al-Ṭabarī, the polymathic author of a massive and very influential Tafsīr (Q. commentary) as well as an important and extensive universal history entitled Tarikh al-rusūl wa’l-muluk (The History of the Prohets and the Kings). Commenting upon the  seventh verse of the Surat Hūd (Surah of Hūd, Q. 11) in his Tafsir, Jāmiʿ al-bayān ʿan taʾwīl āy al-Qurʾān, al-Ṭabarī cites the `Hadīth of al-`amā’ in the following manner : 



(Cf. al-Tabarī Tafsīr XII. 4  Q. 11:7. ).

al-Ṭabarī, Abū Jaʿfar Muḥammad b. Jarīr (Jāmiʿ). Jāmiʿ al-bayān ʿan taʾwīl āy al-Qurʾān. 30 vols., 3rd edn. Cairo: Maṭbaʿat al-Muṣṭafā al-Bābī al-Ḥalabī wa-Awlādihī, 1388/1968

It will be convenient now to register the slightly variant texts  of the `Hadīth of amā in the vastly important and influential universal History – beginning with creation and primordial matters - of al-Tabari  who drew on many early transmissions of Islamic traditions. The so-called `ḥadith al-`amā’ is a succinct Arabic text which exists in some slightly variant versions  and chains of transmission. It records an alleged response of the Prophet  Muhammad to a question posed by Abū Razīn al `Aqīlī [`Uqaylī] about God’s location "before he created the creation / His creatures or the heavens and the earth. It reads, as translated by Rosenthal  from the History of al-Tabari

He [God] was in عماء (`amā’) a cloud with no air [hawā’] underneath it [Him] or above it [Him]. Then he created His Throne upon the [Cosmic] water (as cited by al-Ṭabarī, Tārīkh al-rusūl wa’l-mulūk, 1:36; trans. Rosenthal, with adaptions and some insertions).

 Having said this al-Ţabarī immediately cites a slightly variant form transmitted from al-Muthanna ibn Ibrāhīm – al-Ḥajjāj - Ḥammād - Ya`lā ibn `Aţā – Wakī ibn Ḥudus – and his paternal uncle Abū Razīn al-`Aqīlī [`Uqaylī] :  

I asked the Messenger of God: Where was our Lord before He created the heavens and the earth? The Prophet replied : In a cloud with air above and underneath it. Then he created His Throne upon the water” (Tabari, TRM: 34 trans. Rosehthal 204).

This second version is regarded – probably correctly – by Rosenthal as “hardly correct” since “in Tafsīr XII.4 (see above) the negations are found as in the preceding tradition [see above]”. The same translator comments that “the only difference between  this and the preceding tradition is the two links of the chain of transmitters between Ţabarī and Ḥammād ibn Salamah” (ibid, fn.262).

Further Translations.

Aside from the translation of Rosenthal cited (and slightly adapted above) the following are a few further translation of the first al-Tabari version : 



Islamo-Biblica, primordial things and the `Hadith of `Amā'.

The prophetic, Islamic ḥadīth of `Amā’  reflects passages in the Hebrew Bible, the New  Testament and select Mandaean writings in which “cloud” can indicate a primordial divine being[s]). Centrally important in this respect are the opening cosmological verses of the first biblical Hebrew book of Genesis, the pre-creation – “desolate and void (tou wa bohu) and darkness was on the face of the deep” as well as the references to the firmament and the waters in Genesis 1:6ff. The pre-creation primordial state is indicated as follows.

"The earth was without form, and void tohu wa-bohu (Hebrew: תֹהוּ וָבֹהוּ; and darkness (Heb. ḥō·šeḵ) was on the face of the deep ("Deep" = Hebrew: תְהוֹם tehôm). And the Spirit of God (ruach elohim), was hovering [moving] (מְרַחֶ֖פֶת = mə·ra·ḥe·p̄eṯ) over the face of the waters." (Genesis 1: 2).  



This prophetic ḥadīth of عماء `amā’ reflects passages in the Hebrew Bible about God being beclouded, hidden or enshrouded in his unapproachable transcendence.

God is said to dwell in  "thick darkness" (Heb הָֽעֲרָפֶל ha-araphel  Exod.  20:21b). His theophany was at times in a "pillar of cloud" (Exod. 33:9ff;  cf. 1 Kings 8:12;  Ps. 97:2; Jud. 13:22).

The  apophatic  theological speculations of the Cappadocian Father Gregory of Nyssa (d. c. 395 CE), reflect certain of the above cited biblical traditions. A few of his works were early translated into Arabic. His On the Life of Moses  states that the "divine cloud" which led the Israelities (Exod. 13:31 2) was "something beyond human comprehension" (Life of Moses, tr. 38; cf. Philo, Vit. Mos. I.29.166).



`Amā’ and primordial Things in Medieval Islamic Literatures.

al-Ḥasan ʿAlī ibn al-Āthīr, (b. Jazirat Ibn ’Umar, Syria, 1160- d. Mosul, 1234).

al-Kamil fi'l-Tarikh

Then God created things; after the Pen and after that He commanded it saying, ‘Write! What will be up till the Day of Resurrection, there were included saḥāb an raqīq an , delicate clouds (coll.). By this is meant the ghamām (clouds coll.) about which the Prophet [Muhammad] spoke, for Abū Razīn al-`Aqīlī asked him

Ibn Kathīr (d. Damascus, 774 / 1373), al-Bidāya wa’l-nihāya, البداية والنهاية



Abū al-'Abbās Aḥmad ibn 'Alī ibn Yūsuf al-Qurashī al-Būnī (d. 622/1225).

The apparently unpublished 150-250 page Lafā'if al-ishārāt fī asrār al-ḥurūf al-`uluwiyyat - لطائف الإشارات في أسرار الحروف العلويات - of al-Būnī makes an early reference to the "Clay of Adam" (tinat Adam) being  fi’l-`Ama’ , in the same "cloud" which enshroded the Deity

The `Hadith of al-`Amā’ in the writings of Ibn al-`Arabi and devotees influenced by him.

Muhammad  Muhyi al-Din Ibn al-`Arabi  (638 /1240)



Nūr al-Dīn, `Abd al-Raḥman Jāmī (d. 898/1492).
شرح حديث عماء


Shī`ī writers on the `Hadith of al-`amā’.

The most probably Shi`i historian Abū l-Ḥasan ‛Alī ibn al-Ḥusayn al-Mas‛ūdī (born ca. 896 - d. c. Cairo 345[6]/956 [957] CE) cites the following version of the `Hadith of al-`amā’ in his Akhbār al-Zamān wa man Abādahu al-Ḥidthān.

“The Messenger of God was asked, `Where was our Lord before he created the creation / creatures (al-khalq / al-khuluk) and the heavens and the earth? He replied, `He was in `amā’ without hawā’ (Air - Atmosphere) above Him and without hawā’ (Air- Atmosphere) beneath Him. Then He created His Throne upon the [cosmic] Water (al-mā’).

Ibn Shahrāshūb (1095-1192)  ابن شهر آشوب

Abū ʿAbd Allāh Muḥammad ibn ʿAlī ibn Shahr Āshūb Sarawī Māzandarānī, "Rashīd al-Dīn" (b. Sārī, Mazandarān. 1095- d. Aleppo, 1192), Ibn Shahrāshūb (1095-1192) cites the following version of the `Hadith al-`Amā’' in his عوالی اللئالی  al-Lā’alī al-`awalī


`Abd al-Karim al-Jili and his al-Insan al-kamil

The Arabic Poem from the opening section on al-`Ama’ in the al-Insan al-kamil of the Shi`ite Sufi `Abd al Karīm al Jili (c. 1365 1420).

The Theophanic Cloud - al-Ama' is the Primordal Locale; the Firmament [Sphere] (falak) of the Beauteous Suns (al-shamus al-husn) setting therein (affal);

[2] It is the Personna of the Logos-Self of God (nafs nafs Allah) for He was before it and within It;

A Cosmic Entity [Being] (kawn) from which naught emerges and naught is altered! .

[3] Its Symbolic Likeness (mithl) is the elevated Symbolic Likeness of His Prototypical, Apophatic Blackness (kammun, lit cumin);

It is even as the Prototypical-Apophatic Blackness of Fire (kammun nar) which hath ever been encompassed by Cosmic Stone (al-jandal).

[4] Whatever the case, Cosmic Fire (nar) is generated from its Cornerstones (al-ahjar);

By virtue of its essential nature (hukm) and its Prototypical-Apophatic Blackness (kammun) it is way beyond penetrability!

[5] That Cosmic Fire (nar) which is generated from its Cornerstones (al-ahjar) is something secreted therein (kamina);

Were it to be made manifested according to its essential nature (hukm) nothing would be divulged thereby.

[6] Nonetheless, He saw us gazing through He is [hidden] in al-`Ama' (the Apophatic Cloud)!


The Commentary on the `Hadith al-`Amā’' by Sayyid Ruhollah Mūsavi Khomeini (1902-1989).

Ruhollah Khomeini, the Shi`i cleric known as Ayatollah and leader of the 1979 Iranian revolution, is well-known as one early on interested in Islamic mystical or `irfani philosophical theology, including certain writings of Ibn al-`Arabi.





The `ḥadith al-`Amā’ and the motif of `Amā’  in Select Babi-Baha'i primary sources.

Thousands of hadīth texts are cited by the Bāb and Baha’-Allah in many of their major and minor works. Arabic Ḥadīth rooted items of vocabulary such as `amā’ are very frequent. Baha’is thus have a positive attitude towards orally transmitted ḥadīth statements attributed the twelver Imams be they exegetical of the Arabic Qur'an, doctrinal, theological, ritual, or in some sense of moral-ethical import . While they may not be seen as waḥy  (directly divinely inspired) like the Qur'an itself, they are yet considered ilham, secondarily divinely inspired (see TAB). Prophetic and Imami traditions recorded in hadith texts are valued for doctrinal guidance and for patterns of life‑style as they may set forth down spiritual values suitable for emulation. Yet, we should add, the Bāb and Baha'-Allah as well as `Abdu'l-Baha' and Shoghi Effendi, sometimes challenged the authenticity of lslamic traditions recorded, for example by Muhammad Baqir Majlisī and many others. Citing eschatological proof texts, for example, in his (Persian) Dalā'il-i Sab`ah, the Bāb directs his possibly Shaykhī questioner to the Biḥār al-anwār though he boldly has it that the authenticity of such traditions is suspect (Per. taḥqīq-i īn aḥādīth ithbāt nīst, DSP:51). Going further in a complex commentary upon the prophetic import of certain isolated letters of the Q., the Bāb cites then disagrees with Majlisī holding that he had failed to grasp the true zāhir (outer) import of the qur'ānic isolated letters which he had applied to his own time (Bihār2 52:107; INBMC 98:35ff).

 The use of the `Ama' motif in the Qayyum al-asma' of the Bab.

Qayyūm al-asmā’ X

The highly imamocentric sūrah, the Sūrat al-`amā’ constitutes the tenth Surah of the Qayyum al-asma' of the Bab.


Qayyum al-asma' XVI on Qur'an 12:15.

"Then a spokesman among the brothers of Joseph, that is, [Imām] Ḥasan son of `Alī - upon him be peace-- one mighty in the Mother Book [and one] about and in the Ancient [Sinaitic] Fire, said, “Do not slay Joseph! Rather, cast him into the depth of the pit of the Divine Unicity (jubb al-aḥadiyya) concealed about the [Sinatic] Fire."

God, verily, hath intended by the "pit" (al-jubb) the `amā' hidden in the secret and concealed air above the mystery inscribed in the Mother Book about the line (`amā' al- mustasarr fi hawā' al- sirr -mustasirr `alā al- sirr fī umm al-kitāb ḥawl al- saţr mastūr an) (QA. XI. fol. 17a trans. Lambden from EGB ms. F 21).

The use here of both `amā' ("cloud") and hawā' ("air") strongly suggests that the Bāb had the `Ḥadīth of `amā' and its interpretation in mind in this chapter of his QA.



 The commentary on the `Tradition of `Amā’ of the Bab

A commentary on the `Tradition of `amā’ was specifically written by the Bāb for Sayyid Yaḥyā Dārābī, Vaḥīd (d.1850 CE). It may date to between 1845 and 1846 when Sayyid Yaḥyā Dārābī, Vaḥīd interacted with and became a follower of the Bab and forms part of the longer series of expositions of Islamic Hadith texts (see INBMC       ). Without going into details, it may be noted that far from being an apophatic mystery, `amā’ is described as an hypostatic “exteriorization from God" ( al-zāhir `an Allāh).


 `Ama' in  the Rhyming prose of the Bab.

The Khutba al-Jaliliyya.

In the Name of God, the Transcendent, the All-Mighty.

Praised be to God Who caused the Divine Radiance (al-diya’) to shine resplendent and the Tajalli (Self-Manifestation /Theophany) of the Theophanic Cloud (al`ama’) by virtue of the Divine Glory (al-baha’). And He manifested the Laudation (al-thana’) through the Brightness (al-sana’)… (INBMC 67:1).


The Rashḥ-i `amā’ (`The Sprinkling of the Theophanic Cloud’, late 1852) of Baha'-Allah.