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Written for possible inclusion in The Baha'i Encyclopedia. Posted with permission of both the author and of the editor of the Encyclopedia project.

The Nature of God and the Creation of the Universe in Bahá'í Cosmology

by Keven Brown


The Bahá'í teachings on creation correspond with many of the central ideas affirmed in the Judeo-Christian-Muslim tradition, in Greek philosophy, and, in places, they parallel theories found in non-Western religions. Taken as a whole, they present a new synthesis of ancient and more recent cosmological teachings. Their importance to the history of intellectual thought derives in part from the fact that they appear in the form of a "prophetic revelation" at a time when modern Western ideas were also beginning to penetrate nineteenth century Iran and intermix with its enduring medieval conceptual milieu.

1. The Nature of the Creator

To understand the meaning of creation from a Bahá'í perspective requires understanding something of the nature of the Creator. As the Supreme Being through which the existence of all other things is realized, the Creator exists outside of His creation. He is not a force inside the universe, nor is creation the manifestation or extension of His existence, as some Sufis have proposed. The designation "Creator" is quite appropriate, as it implies a separation between the Creator and the things created, in the sense that what is created only becomes fashioned through the intermediary of instruments and tools. For example, it is the paintbrush in the hand of the painter that is the direct cause of the creation of the painting. In the same way, according to the Bahá'í teachings, God creates through the intermediary of the Primal Will, which is His instrument for calling all created things into being. The Primal Will, therefore, is the direct cause of the universe, while the Creator is said to be "the Originator of the cause of causes" (‘Abdu'l-Bahá, Selections, p. 61).

If the Creator is outside of creation, then what can we really know about His being? ‘Abdu'l-Bahá describes the situation by this analogy: "Man is like unto a tiny organism contained within a fruit; this fruit hath developed out of the blossom, the blossom hath grown out of the tree, the tree is sustained by the sap, and the sap formed out of earth and water. How then can this tiny organism comprehend the nature of the garden, conceive of the gardener and comprehend his being? That is manifestly impossible" (Bahá'í World Faith, p. 343). Yet by the power of reason and reflection, according to ‘Abdu'l-Bahá, we can realize that the "gardener" must exist. He continues: "Should that organism understand and reflect, it would observe that this garden, this tree, this blossom, this fruit would in nowise have come to exist by themselves in such order and perfection. Similarly the wise and reflecting soul will know of a certainty that this infinite universe with all it grandeur and order could not have come to exist by itself" (pp. 343-344).

Bahá'u'lláh affirms the essential ungraspability of the Creator's being: "He [God] hath from everlasting been immeasurably exalted above the understanding of His creatures and sanctified from the conceptions of His servants....From everlasting Thou hast been a treasure hidden from the sight and minds of men and shalt continue to remain the same for ever and ever" (Tablets of Bahá'u'lláh, pp. 112-114). He also emphasizes that the Creator is "exalted above all comparisons and likenesses with which men have compared Him. He hath erred grievously who hath mistaken these comparisons and likenesses for God Himself" (Gleanings, pp. 336-337). Difference in degree of existence and lack of similarity in essential being are barriers to understanding (Some Answered Questions, pp. 146-147, Makátíb, vol. 2, pp. 44-47). Nevertheless, the existence of such a being can be proved by rational arguments. Traditional creation-, ontological-, and design-based proofs for the existence of God are given by ‘Abdu'l-Bahá, as well as a modern proof based on the composition of things (see Some Answered Questions, pp. 3-6; Amr va Khalq, vol. 1, pp. 42-58).

Because the true nature of the Creator's attributes cannot be grasped by the human mind, Bahá'í texts take the negative approach toward them:

As to the attributes and perfections such as will, knowledge, power and other ancient attributes that we ascribe to that Divine Reality, these are the signs that reflect the existence of beings in the visible plane and not the absolute perfections of the Divine Essence that cannot be comprehended. For instance...we infer that the Ancient Power on whom dependeth the existence of these beings cannot be ignorant; thus we say He is All-Knowing. It is certain that it is not impotent, it must be then All-Powerful....The purpose is to show that these attributes and perfections that we recount for that Universal Reality are only in order to deny imperfections, rather than to assert [that God possesses] the perfections that the human mind can conceive. (Bahá'í World Faith, pp. 342-343)

This position is important, and cannot be over emphasized, because it explains why Bahá'í texts are able to resolve certain philosophical difficulties that have led many thinkers into nets of contradiction because they have relied upon a literal likeness between the attributes of God and the attributes of man.

A good example is the question of God's knowledge. ‘Abdu'l-Bahá says that the advocates of the doctrine of the "unity of existence" (waḥdat al-wujúd) compared God's knowledge to human knowledge in order to prove their theory. He repeats their proof thus:

All beings are things known of God; and knowledge without things known does not exist, for knowledge is related to that which exists, and not to nothingness....Therefore, the realities of beings, which are things known of God the Most High, have an intelligible existence, since they are divine intelligible forms; and they are preexistent, as the Divine Knowledge is preexistent. As this knowledge is preexistent, the things known are equally so, and the individualizations and the specifications of beings, which are the preexistent objects of God's knowledge, are the Divine Knowledge itself. For the reality of the Divine Being, knowledge, and the things known, have an absolute unity which is real and established. Otherwise, the Divine Being would become the place of multiple phenomena, and a plurality of preexistences would become necessary, which is absurd. So it is proved that the things known constitute knowledge itself, and knowledge the Essence itself--that is to say, that the Knower, the knowledge, and the things known are one single reality. (Some Answered Questions, p. 291).[1]

In refutation of this proof ‘Abdu'l-Bahá says:

Briefly, with regard to this theory that all things are realized through the One [God], this is agreed upon by the philosophers and the Prophets. But there is a difference between them. The Prophets say the knowledge of God has no need of the existence of beings, but the knowledge of the creature requires the existence of objects of knowledge; if the knowledge of God had need of any other thing, then it would be the knowledge of the creature, and not the knowledge of God, for the preexistent is different from the created, and the created is opposed to the preexistent….Therefore, the preexistence of the specifications and individualizations of beings, which are the things known of God, does not exist. These divine and perfect attributes [belonging to God's Essence] cannot be encompassed by rational perception in order to judge whether the knowledge of God needs objects of knowledge or not. (Some Answered Questions, pp. 293-294)[2]

Averroes shared the same opinion when he clarified in his Decisive Treatise (Kitáb faṣl al-maqál):

God, the Exalted, knows them [particulars] in a way that is not of the same kind as our way of knowing them. For our knowledge of them is an effect of the object known, originated when it comes into existence and changing when it changes; whereas Glorious God's knowledge of existence is the opposite of this; it is the cause of the object known, which is an existent being. Thus to suppose the two kinds of knowledge similar to each other is to identify the essences and properties of opposite things, and that is the extreme of ignorance. (quoted in Medieval Political Philosophy, p. 172)

All of this is not to deny that the Creator may actually have the attributes ascribed to Him, but that if He has them, they exist in Him in a way that is different and more perfect than the way they exist in His creatures. As being without mind and consciousness is considered an imperfection, "we say [that] that Reality has a consciousness....But the consciousness of God is different from the consciousness of man" (quoted in Goodall, Daily Lessons Received at ‘Akká, p. 29).

2. The Relation Between Creator and Created

The relation between the Creator and the created is one of voluntary emanation (ṣudúr). Creatures emanate from God, as speech proceeds from a speaker, action from an actor, and writing from a writer (Some Answered Questions, pp. 202-206). The speech, the action, and the writing all depend completely upon that from which they proceed, but they are not consubstantial with it or comparable to it. ‘Abdu'l-Bahá contrasts this view with that of those Sufis who say that creatures are the manifestation (ẓuhúr or tajallí) of the Creator:

The Sufis say: "The realities of things are the manifestations of the real One." But the Prophets say: "They emanate from the real One," and great is the difference between manifestation and emanation. Appearance by manifestation means that a single thing appears in infinite forms. For example, the seed, which is a single thing possessing the vegetative perfections, which it manifests in infinite forms, becomes resolved into branches, leaves, flowers, and fruits. This is called appearance by manifestation. Whereas in appearance by emanation the real One remains and continues in the exaltation of Its sanctity….The real One can be compared to the sun. The rays of the sun emanate from it and shine upon all created things, but the sun remains in the heights of its loftiness; it does not descend or resolve itself into the forms of the rays, nor does it appear in the identity of things through specification and individualization. (Some Answered Questions, pp. 294-295)[3]

Though both parties agree that "by God all things are realized, and by Him all beings have attained to existence" (Some Answered Questions, p. 203), the Sufi doctrine of manifestation would make the act of creation necessary, not voluntary. The seed, for example, of necessity must manifest the potentialities latent within it. It cannot yield what it does not already possess. This view corresponds with that of many Muslim philosophers, including Avicenna, who believed that the procession of creatures from God is "necessary," hence ruling out creation as a voluntary act on the part of God (cf. Marmura, Conflict over the World's Pre-eternity, chapter 1). The reason the philosophers have said that God's creation is necessary is because of their identification of God with the first direct cause of creation, and cause and effect, in this sense, necessarily entail each other (in the same way that fire necessarily entails heat). On this basis, they also argued that the creation is eternal, because that which is caused as a necessary effect always exists together with its cause. The Bahá'í view, as quoted above, is that God is the Originator of the first natural cause of created things, but not Himself such a cause. For were "necessity" to accurately describe the relation between God and creation, the true meaning of "creation" would be negated, which implies the power to freely create something new and novel from what is outside oneself. As summed up by Etienne Gilson, "the philosophers who examined these problems with the help of reason alone were never able to rise to the Christian notion of a free God" (History of Christian Philosophy, p. 466).

How then do the Bahá'í Writings resolve these two important questions: (1) Is creation eternal, as the philosophers say, or did it have a beginning, as the theologians assert? (2) If God is not the first cause in the chain of natural causation, how did He create the universe?

In answer to the first question, Bahá'u'lláh indicates that both standpoints are true from a certain perspective:

As regards thine assertions about the beginning of creation, this is a matter on which conceptions vary by reason of the divergences in men's thoughts and opinions. Wert thou to assert that it hath ever existed and shall continue to exist, it would be true; or wert thou to affirm the same concept as is mentioned in the sacred Scriptures, no doubt would there be about it, for it hath been revealed by God, the Lord of the worlds. Indeed He was a hidden treasure. This is a station that can never be described nor even alluded to. And in the station of "I did wish to make Myself known," God was, and His creation had ever existed beneath His shelter from the beginning that hath no beginning, apart from its being preceded by a Firstness which cannot be regarded as firstness and originated by a Cause inscrutable even unto all men of learning. (Tablets of Bahá'u'lláh, p. 140).

The standpoint from which the eternity of creation is true is with respect to time. There never was a time when the creation did not exist. In the station of "I did wish to make Myself known," God, as known by names and attributes, has always had a creation. The standpoint from which the beginning of creation is true is with respect to existence. In other words, to speak of God as being before His creation refers to an essential (or ontological) priority to creation, but not to a temporal priority. The "Firstness" that Bahá'u'lláh mentions above refers to the fact that all created things have a cause which logically precedes them. As Bahá'u'lláh states: "The one true God hath everlastingly existed, and will everlastingly continue to exist. His creation, likewise, hath had no beginning, and will have no end. All that is created, however, is preceded by a cause" (Gleanings, p. 162).

This fact of God's ontological, but not temporal, priority to creation is how Bahá'u'lláh explains those saying attributed to the Prophets of old, such as "In the beginning was God; there was no creature to know Him," and "The Lord was alone; with no one to adore Him." He continues: "To this same truth bear witness these words which He hath revealed: ‘God was alone; there was none else besides Him. He will always remain what He hath ever been.' Every discerning eye will readily perceive that the Lord is now manifest, yet there is none to recognize His glory. By this is meant that the habitation wherein the Divine Being dwelleth is far above the reach and ken of any one besides Him" (Gleanings, pp. 150-151). God, therefore, can always be described as being "alone" and "with no one to adore Him," because His state of existence utterly transcends the state of contingent existence.

There is a case, however, in which God's existence precedes the existence of the universe both essentially and temporally, and that is with respect to its parts. ‘Abdu'l-Bahá explains: "Yes, it may be that one of the parts of the universe, one of the globes, for example, may come into existence, or may be disintegrated, but the other endless globes are still existing; the universe would not be disordered nor destroyed….As each globe has a beginning, necessarily it has an end, because every composition, collective or particular, must of necessity be decomposed" (Some Answered Questions, p. 180). In the light of recent advances in astronomy and theoretical physics, what ‘Abdu'l-Bahá means by a "globe" or a "part" of the universe can now be understood to be a galaxy, a galactic cluster, or even a particular universe. Similar to Hindu cosmology, Bahá'í texts hold that cycles of creation and destruction in the world of existence are necessary (Some Answered Questions, pp. 160-161).

3. The Act of Creation

God's motive for bringing the creation into being is essentially twofold. The first is love: "I loved thy creation, hence I created thee" (Bahá'u'lláh, Hidden Words, p. 6). This love is a bountiful outpouring that has always existed and will never cease. ‘Abdu'l-Bahá affirms: "Love is the cause of God's revelation unto man, the vital bond inherent, in accordance with divine creation, in the realities of all things" (Selections, p. 27). The second motive, which has already been mentioned, is God's desire to reveal Himself and to be known.

The first thing to emanate from God, in the station of wishing to be known, is the Primal Will, which ‘Abdu'l-Bahá identifies with the First Intellect of the ancient philosophers (Some Answered Questions, p. 203). In conventional religious terminology, it is known as the Word of God and His Command (Tablets of Bahá'u'lláh, pp. 140-41). In the terminology of Plato, the Primal Will corresponds to the "Idea of the Good," which, consequently, emanates from the Being who is good. ‘Abdu'l-Bahá explains that this Will "is without beginning or end" (i.e., having temporal preexistence), whereas only God has both essential and temporal preexistence. "Essential preexistence is an existence which is not preceded by a cause" (Some Answered Questions, pp. 203, 280). The Will, therefore, although originated by a cause, is co-eternal with God and precedes space and time. Space and time unfold from it as its necessary effects. It is the act by which God, as the agent, calls the rest of creation into being (Tablets of Bahá'u'lláh, p. 140; Kitáb-i-Íqán, p. 98), as is also recounted in the Biblical story of genesis, the gospel of John (1:1-3), and such Qur'ánic verses as "When God decrees a thing He has only to say to it Be! and it is" (2:117).

God creates all things through the intermediary of His Will, but what about the Will itself? According to the Báb, God created the Will through itself:

God, verily, created the Will from nothing through itself, then He created through it all that to which the name "thing" can be applied. The cause of its existence, in truth, is its own self and naught else. Those who believe that the Essence is the cause of creation have made themselves partners with Him….It is established in philosophy that cause and effect are alike. Therefore, the Imám hath declared: "The cause of things is His fashioning, but He is not its cause." (Amr va Khalq, vol. 1, pp. 100-101)

In the first sentence, the Báb is repeating the dictum of the sixth Imám, Ja‘far Ṣádiq, who stated: "God created the Will through itself, then He created all things through the Will" (quoted in Idris Hamid, Metaphysics, p. 174, footnote). This doctrine of the Will being its own immediate cause was also supported by Christian philosophers, such as Augustine and Duns Scotus (see Gilson, History of Christian Philosophy, pp. 73, 463). The intent of this passage is to emphasize that God is not that kind of cause defined in philosophy as "that whose existence immediately and without conceivable delay necessitates the existence of something else" (Suhrawardí, Philosophy of Illumination, p. 43). God is not this kind of cause; His being does not automatically entail the existence of creatures as effects, nor does it automatically entail an act of will, since God may choose to will something or not to will it. According to the theologians, the correct term for God is "agent" (fá'il), not "cause" (sabab), because the term "agent" is applicable to a living, willing, knowing being, who is not compelled to create or act out of necessity or by nature (see Marmura, Conflict over the World's Pre-eternity, p. 12 ff.).

Shaykh Aḥmad Aḥsá'í, also, often quoted the above statements of the Imám Ṣádiq. He identified God's willing with His "acting" and His "fashioning," and he distinguished the actor, i.e., God, from both the acting and the effect of the acting. These three—actor, acting, and effect—constitute three separate realms of being related through emanation. Just as primary matter does not require another matter through which it subsists, willing does not require another act of will by which it is willed, but it is willed through itself; otherwise an infinite regress would ensue. Thus, the Being who wills is not identical to the act of willing, nor is the will identical to the object willed. This does not imply, of course, that the Will is independent of the Being who wills. The Primal Will is always with God and is utterly dependent upon God as its agent.

These three distinct ontological levels are inscribed on the Bahá'í ringstone symbol as the worlds of God, Command, and creation. The Primal Will, which is the world of Command, itself consists, in a subsequent stage, of the inner realities (i.e. intelligible forms and essences) of the things created. ‘Abdu'l-Bahá explains: "The world of Command is the station of the Primal Will, which is a universal reality (ḥaqíqat-i-kullíyyih) that is resolved into infinite forms," like the sea into waves (Makátíb, vol. 2, p. 141). In another place, he describes this station as "the first emanation from God…which appears in infinite forms in the realities of all things and becomes specified and individualized according to the disposition and capacity of the essences of things" (Some Answered Questions, p. 295).[4] In everyday language, an essence, reality, or intelligible form is like the plan or design of something that exists in the mind of its creator before it is called into actual existence. In the Bahá'í Writings, this stage of the creative Act is called predestination or predetermination (qadar). All together the Bahá'í Writings describe seven stages of God's creative Act, three of which are hidden in the atemporal dimension, and four of which are manifested in time. These seven stages will be elaborated upon more later.

Many of the philosophers share a similar conception of the nature of the First Intellect. For instance, Avicenna writes: "This intellect is not...the true God, the First. For although in one respect this first intellect is one, it is multiple inasmuch as it consists of the forms of numerous universals" (quoted in Medieval Political Philosophy, pp. 117-118). Typically, Avicenna reserves the function of providing the forms and matter of the sublunar world to the Active Intellect, which is the tenth intellect in an emanational hierarchy proceeding from the First Cause. This hierarchy of ten intermediate intellects, each corresponding to a heavenly sphere, between God and the realm of physical matter is not found in Bahá'í cosmology. Rather, a single universal intellect, now termed the Primal Will, performs this function.

‘Abdu'l-Bahá, in the tradition of the Platonic philosophers, does not consider the inner realities of things in the Will to be mere nominal constructs. Rather, they have a reality in comparison to which outward things are but a fleeting image. He says: "That which thou beholdest in this temporal world are the fleeting shadows of the world of the Kingdom and the external images of the celestial realm. This is why thou observest that these shadows and forms are continuously being renewed. They are not permanent, but the succession of similar forms and like states is such as to give the appearance of constancy. In the end, however, it will become clear that it was a mirage, not real water; illusions, not the realities of the signs" (Muntakhabát, vol. 3, p. 23). The "realities of the signs" are akin, if not identical, to the eternal Forms of Plato, which, like the laws of nature posited by modern science, govern the temporal unfolding of outer phenomena. Suhrawardí explains that Plato's Forms are not nominal predicates of the many (as are universals in logic), but real luminous essences, the roots of the many. They are termed "universal" only insofar as they bear the same relation of emanation to many actualized individuals. Suhrawardí designates them the "lords of the species" (arbáb al-anwá‘ ) (see Harawi, Anváriyyih, pp. 41-42), an expression which Bahá'u'lláh confirms in a Tablet in which He explains the meaning of the "active force" mentioned in the Tablet of Wisdom. In that Tablet, He says: "The intention of the active force is the lord of the species, and it hath other meanings" (Áthár-i-Qalam A‘lá, vol. 7, p. 113).

The Tablet of Wisdom contains many of Bahá'u'lláh's most important statements on the subject of creation. In a key passage, He affirms both the evolution of the temporal universe and the need of complementary active and recipient principles for its realization:

That which hath been in existence had existed before, but not in the form thou seest today. The world of existence came into being through the heat generated from the interaction between the active force and that which is its recipient. These two are the same, yet they are different. Thus doth the Great Announcement inform thee about this glorious structure. Such as communicate the generating influence and such as receive its impact are indeed created through the irresistible Word of God, which is the Cause of the entire creation, while all else besides His Word are but the creatures and effects thereof. (Tablets of Bahá'u'lláh, p. 140)

This passage has been explained by ‘Abdu'l-Bahá. In regard to the first sentence, he says: "From this blessed verse it is clear and evident that the universe is evolving. In the opinion of the philosophers and the wise this fact of the development and evolution of the world of existence is also established. That is to say, it is progressively transferred from one state to another." In regard to the next two sentences, he states: "The substance and primary matter of contingent beings is the ethereal power, which is invisible and known only through its effects, such as electricity, heat, and light—these are vibrations of that power, and this is established and proven in natural philosophy and is known as the ethereal matter. This ethereal matter is itself both the active force and its recipient" (Má'idiy-i-Ásmání, vol. 2, p. 69).

Now, first we have Bahá'u'lláh affirming that the active force is the "lord of the species," in other words, the Platonic Forms or realities of things. But ‘Abdu'l-Bahá states that ethereal matter is meant. This seeming contradiction is easily resolved, because what is being referred to is simultaneously two things, neither of which can be realized without the other. These two are matter and form, or in other terms, existence and essence. This ontological polarity principle is also a cornerstone of the philosophy of Shaykh Aḥmad, who proposed that matter and form logically require each other in order to exist. Hence, matter, which receives God's action, becomes active in relation to the form it takes on, which, in turn, is active in relation to that which it acts upon. These two together are the inseparable common ground of all creatures, whether they be eternal and intelligible or perishable and material. As Idris Hamid expresses it: "Every created, contingent thing is a complex of acting (fi‘l) and becoming-in-yielding-to-acting (infi‘ál)" ("Metaphysics and Cosmology of Process," p., 136). The Báb confirms this essential duality at the basis of contingent existence. He explains: "With the exception of God, nothing can subsist through itself. All things are composite. Once this duality is established, connection is also established, for a thing cannot be a thing except through its existence, which is the aspect of manifestation (tajallí) in it, through its essence, which is the aspect of receiving (qubúl), and through connection (rabṭ), which is realized after the union [of the first two]" (INBA, vol. 14, p. 268).

Since logically the action of God cannot produce an effect from absolute nothingness, the medium of matter, which is like the screen for a painter, must in some manner preexist, though without any definable characteristics whatsoever. This is confirmed by ‘Abdu'l-Bahá when he explains: "If it be said that such a thing came into existence from nonexistence, this does not refer to absolute nonexistence, but means that its former condition in relation to its actual condition was nothingness. For absolute nothingness cannot find existence, as it has not the capacity of existence" (Some Answered Questions, p. 281). Shoghi Effendi also clarifies that the statement of Bahá'u'lláh in Gleanings: "Who out of utter nothingness hath created the reality of all things" (pp. 64-65) "should be taken in a symbolic and not a literal sense" (Letters to Australia and New Zealand, p. 41). The divine act of creation, therefore, is the actualization of preexisting potential and not calling into being from absolute nothingness, which ‘Abdu'l-Bahá tells us is impossible. God, therefore, is still the creator of matter insofar as it is actualized through His action. In itself matter is non-being, but the action of God gives it being by giving it form.

This is similar to the idea of the indefinite Dyad said to be taught by Plato (see Reale, Plato and Aristotle, pp. 65-70). The Dyad is not the number two but the principle of duality, a kind of intelligible, indeterminate matter, either infinitely great or infinitely small, capable of taking on a multiplicity of forms through the action of the One, which determines it. The Dyad is like the canvas upon which God paints.[5] From the interaction of these two principles, therefore, being is produced as a unity of determination and indetermination, of limit and unlimited. In God, or the One, there is no polarity, for His existence is identical to His essence, and vice versa. It is at the level of the Primal Will, or the World of Command, that the duality of existence and essence, matter and form, arises. These two principles are symbolically expressed in the Bahá'í Writings by the two letters "B" and "E," or Káf and Nún, which together form the imperative command "Be!" (kun). The Báb affirms: "Through the ‘B' God created the matter of all things, and through the ‘E' God created the form of all things" (quoted in Afnán, "Tafsír-i-Bismilláh," p. 126). He also refers to them as the father and the mother of all things, and identifies them with the stages of God's Will (mashíyyat) and Purpose (irádah), the first two of the seven stages of creation. Nothing in creation exists which is not a composite effect of these two active and recipient principles.

In order for the Primal Will (as Dyad receiving act) to be resolved into the infinite intelligible forms of created things, it needs the creative energies of the names and attributes of God. ‘Abdu'l-Bahá attests that God "hath ordained these names and attributes to be the first principle of giving existence in the world of creation and the source of the different grades of realities in the degrees of existence" (Makátíb, vol. 1, p.13). These names and attributes, therefore, are the highest members of hierarchy of intelligible existence in the world of the Primal Will. They "are actually and forever existing and not potential. Because they convey life, they are called Life-giving; because they provide, they are called Bountiful, the Provider; because they create, they are called Creator; because they educate and govern, the name Lord God is applied" (‘Abdu'l-Bahá, Promulgation, p. 219). The other intelligible realities are structures and manifestations of these divine names.

Unlike God's essential attributes, which are identical to His Essence and exhibit no need, these names and attributes are of a very different nature. They are originated and "require the existence of objects or creatures upon which they have been bestowed and in which they have become manifest" (Promulgation, p. 219). Thus, every inner reality in the world of Command requires an outer reality that corresponds to it and is its expression. Nature, in its essence, is an intelligible reality (Some Answered Questions, p. 84); it is both "God's Will" and "its expression" (Tablets of Bahá'u'lláh, p. 142). ‘Abdu'l‑Bahá explains that "all of the realities and conditions which the philosophers attribute to nature are the same as have been attributed to the Primal Will in the Holy Scriptures" (Má'idiy-i Ásmání, vol. 2, p. 70). All particular phenomena to which we attach the name "beautiful," for example, are expressions, in part, of the originated attribute of beauty that exists eternally in the world of the Will.

According to Bahá'u'lláh, the names are garments for these originated attributes, which in turn are identical to God's creative actions. He explains:

In another station, the names are garments for the attributes, since an attribute is an act being manifested by an actor, such as giving something or causing one thing to prevail over another. Thus whatever is manifested by the actor appeareth through the stages of his will and his power. This act is made manifest as an effect of the action produced by the actor. When God purposed to make His action manifest in His realm, reveal it upon His earth, establish it in His land, and make it a perpetual word and a clear sign, He clothed it in the garment of names. This is the same as when ye say [of certain acts]: "this is munificent," "this is discerning," "this is informed," and so forth with similar names…. If these actions were not named by these names, they would not become known and made manifest…. Nothing in the heavens or on the earth can exist unless it is under the shadow of certain names among His names. For example, if thou seest the knowledge of a learned person, be assured that this knowledge hath appeared as a result of the effulgence of the name of God the Knowing. If thou observest the power of a powerful individual, know that this power oweth its existence to its reflection of the name the Powerful. In like manner, the loftiness of the sky is a consequence of His name the Exalted, the radiance of the sun is a consequence of His name the Luminous, the stability of the earth is a consequence of His name the Imperturbable, the flowing of water is a consequence of His name the Fluid, and the blowing of wind is a consequence of His name the Sender. (from the Tafsír-i-Hu, International Bahá'í Archives, unpublished manuscript, no. BC003/070/00084 C)

In his commentary upon the Islamic declaration: "In the name of God, the Merciful, the Compassionate," ‘Abdu'l-Bahá also explains how the divine names are given existence at the level of unity-multiplicity (i.e., that of the Primal Will), not that of absolute oneness:

The names of God derive from those attributes which are the perfections [acts] belonging to the reality of the Essence. In the station of the absolute oneness (aḥadíyya) of the Essence, these names have neither manifestation nor distinction, and no trace, indication, or sign, for they are dispositions that belong to the Essence in the mode of simplicity and original oneness. Rather, it is in the station of unity-multiplicity (wáḥidíyya) that the names become manifested, distinguished, realized, established, and given existence—an existence which emanateth from the merciful Reality and giveth rise to spiritual realities and heavenly essences at the level of the fixed archetypes (a'yán thábita)….So in this regard, namely, that of the absolute oneness of the Essence, the name is the same as the named and equivalent to His reality and His identity. It hath no existence additional to and apart from the Essence. For existence is either identical to essence, or different from it. And if it is different from it, we must ask whether it is a requisite of it and its concomitant without cancellation or separation, or is it possible for it to be canceled and separated.

The first is applicable to the reality of the Essence in the station of absolute oneness. His existence is the same as His essence, and His essence is the same as His existence. The second is applicable to the station of necessity [i.e., the Primal Will], where existence is distinct from essence, though the former is a concomitant of the latter in such a way that separation and disassociation are inconceivable and unimaginable, since existence is an essential attribute of essence. The third is applicable to the station of contingency, where something's existence is acquired from another and obtained from that which is beyond itself. In this case, its existence is other than its essence, its essence is other than its existence, and the separation and disassociation of these two are possible. (Makátíb, vol. 1, pp. 49-50).

These three kinds of existence, or relationships between essence and existence, which correspond to the worlds of God, Command, and creation, have been termed by Shaykh Ahmad "real existence" (al-wujúd al-ḥaqq), "absolute existence" (al-wujúd al-muṭlaq), and "delimited existence" (al-wujúd al-muqayyad) (Hamid, "Metaphysics and Cosmology of Process," p. 97). Real existence, in which essence and existence are identical, belongs only to God. Absolute existence, in which essence and existence are distinct but inseparable, belongs to the Primal Will and to the realities of things. Delimited existence, which ‘Abdu'l-Bahá also describes as "an accident occurring to the realities of things," (Makátíb, vol. 3, p. 354), and which can be separated from them, belongs to the external world.

As for the "fixed archetypes" mentioned in the above passage, this is another expression for the realities of things. As explained by Sajádí, "according to the wayfarers, these are intelligible forms in the world of God; and in the terminology of the theosophists, they are the essences of things. The archetypes are the forms of the divine names, and souls are manifestations of the archetypes" (Farhang-i-Iṣṭiláḥát-i-‘Irfání., p. 115).

‘Abdu'l-Bahá agrees with Aristotle that the existence of each thing depends on four causes: the efficient cause, the formal cause, the material cause, and the final cause (Some Answered Questions, p. 280). The Bahá'í Writings also recognize, like Plato, the existence of intelligible formal causes that transcend the material world, which are the powers or laws through which physical things are enabled to appear in increasingly complex systems of order. Such realities do not enter or exit, descend or ascend, but are described as placeless, all-pervasive, and having a direct connection to things, like images reflected in a mirror (Some Answered Questions, p. 108). At the lowest end of the intelligible hierarchy in the spiritual worlds, at the border of material existence, the matter-form, active-recipient duality is termed "ether" or "ethereal matter" (máddiy-i-athíríyyih) by ‘Abdu'l-Bahá, and the effects by which it can be known include electricity, heat, and light. ‘Abdu'l-Bahá says "it is the sign of the Primal Will in the world of corporeal beings" (Má'idiy-i-Ásmání, vol. 2, p. 69). From the heat generated by the interaction of these two opposites, "the active force and that which is its recipient," the universe unfolds, declares Bahá'u'lláh (Tablets of Bahá'u'lláh, p. 140). It is interesting to recall here Aristotle's assertion in the Physics (188a): "That opposites are principles is universally agreed. For the principles must come neither from one another nor from anything else, and everything else must come from them."

Neither the intelligible formal causes nor their reflective medium, ethereal matter, constitute the physical realm, but the physical realm is the reflection itself, which is subject to constant transformation. The physical is also expressed as the motion or vibration that occurs in the ethereal medium (Má'idiy-i-Ásmání, vol. 2, p. 69; Some Answered Questions, p. 190), and as "an accident occurring to" or "inhering in the realities of things" (Makátíb, vol. 3, p. 354; Mufávaḍát, p. 203). It is through accidents that the realities of things can be particularized and temporally manifested. What defines the material realm is not matter, which is an essential principle of both the material and spiritual worlds, but the ability of something to become decomposed after composition. ‘Abdu'l-Bahá explains, for example, that because the soul of man "is not a composition of diverse elements…and is not subject to decomposition…it is ever-living, immortal, and eternal." He continues: "The people of truth hold that all material existents, even those which the scientists of today consider simple, if investigated carefully and examined closely, will also be found to be composed [and therefore capable of being decomposed]" (Khiṭábát, vol. 1, pp. 145-146). This was quite prescient of ‘Abdu'l-Bahá, who made this statement in 1911 at a time when atoms where still commonly believed to be indivisible.

‘Abdu'l-Bahá's explanation of the origin of the elements is very similar to current theories regarding the origin of the ninety-two stable atomic elements: The elementary matter of each of these "great existents" was originally one. "That one matter [then] appeared in a particular form in each element. Thus various forms were produced, and these various forms as they were produced became permanent, and each element was specialized. But this permanence was not definite, and did not attain realization and perfect existence until after a very long time. Then...from the composition and combination of these elements innumerable beings appeared" (Some Answered Questions, p. 181).[6] Bahá'u'lláh, like the ancient philosophers, divides the elements into four basic kinds: earth (solid), water (liquid), air (gaseous), and fire (radiant), and affirms that through these four states of matter God fashioned the physical creation (Má'idiy-i-Ásmání, vol. 4, p. 82).

‘Abdu'l-Bahá explains that "every being hath come to exist under numerous influences and continually undergoeth reaction. These influences, too, are formed under the action of still other influences....Such process of causation goes on" until it leads to "the Ultimate Cause" (Bahá'í World Faith, p. 343). This process should not be seen as a "going back in time" but as discovering prior or essential causes outside of time. ‘Abdu'l-Bahá denies that formation is possible by accident (i.e., chance), since "for every effect there must be a cause" (Bahá'í World Faith, p. 342). He says the same of formation by necessity, because "then the formation must be an inherent property of the constituent parts and...under such circumstances the decomposition of any formation is impossible" (Bahá'í World Faith, p. 342). This leaves, he says, voluntary formation, i.e., formation by the agency of the Primal Will, of which the will of each thing is an expression.

‘Abdu'l-Bahá affirms that the attribute of volition in God's act of creation extends in some sense to all created things, and that this is necessary to uphold the justice and mercy of God. He says: "Created things and the recipients of God's action have each accepted a degree of existence according to their own pleasure and desire" (Makátíb, vol. 2, p. 38). Creation thus entails both a voluntary act on the part of the Creator and a voluntary act to receive existence on the part of the created, according to its own disposition.

The jewish philosopher Maimonides made a similar observation. He noted that if the existence of the world was by necessity, nothing could then fail to be "other than as it is." But this would imply that "nothing can diverge in any way from the nature which it has" (Qtd. in Goodman, Jewish and Islamic Philosophy, p. 98). Maimonides explains that only voluntarism allows for "change in the nature of things," that is, evolution, as a means of bringing creation to maturity.

The formation of things through this Will, also equated with nature by ‘Abdu'l-Bahá (see above), comprises seven stages. The first stage is the Will itself, and the second is Purpose, explained earlier as the stages of prime matter and form. The conjunction of these two give rise to the stage of predestination (qadar), which the Báb describes as "the womb of the possible…which existeth for the purpose of choice, for nothing can exist in any world except by its own choice" and "the condition for the choosing of good or evil" (INBA vol. 40, pp. 140-141). Bahá'u'lláh describes predestination as "the stage of scheme and dimension, that is to say, the appearance of means in proper quantity" (Má'idiy-i Ásmání, vol. 8, p. 192), and ‘Abdu'l-Bahá clarifies that it consists of "the necessary and indispensable relationships which exist between the realities of things," such as the relationship between sun and soil, that the sun should shine and the soil yield (Selections from the Writings of ‘Abdu'l-Bahá, p. 198). The design of things and the necessary relationships governing their realities, however, are still hidden and undisclosed in this stage. Their manifestation in time and space is termed "fate" (qaḍá'), which is the fourth of the seven stages of coming-into-being. This would correspond to the actual construction of a bed, for instance. The fifth stage is termed either permission (idhn) or execution (imḍá'), which Shaykh Ahmad calls "the concomitant of fate." The sixth stage is called the fixed time, or the irrevocable decree (ajal), which refers to the natural duration of things, and the seventh is called the book (kitáb), which is the unveiling of the perfection of things. (See Amr va Khalq, vol. 1, pp. 99-100 and Má'idiy-i-Ásmání , vol. 8, pp. 191-192.)

After the creation of the elements (along with stars and planets), the elements became composed into the forms that would give rise to organic existence, and by the mutual effect of these combinations on each other innumerable life forms arose. ‘Abdu'l-Bahá compares the planet earth to a living being. Like particular beings, it is itself a system composed of many sub-systems and governed by the same laws (Some Answered Questions, p. 182). Many life forms emerged simultaneously because life as a whole depends upon the unity and mutual dependence of different forms of life: "There is no doubt that this perfection which is in all beings was realized by the creation of God from the composition of the elements, by their appropriate mingling and proportionate quantities, by the manner of their composition, and the influence of other beings. For all beings are connected together like a chain; and reciprocal help, assistance and interaction belonging to the properties of things are the causes of the existence, development and growth of created beings" (Some Answered Questions, pp. 178-79).[7]

Biological evolution [cf. evolution], as a process of change influencing living organisms, is accepted by the Bahá'í teachings. Evolution in the broader sense of a force shaping other systems, such as societies, is also used. In regard to physical evolution, ‘Abdu'l-Bahá states: "It is evident that this terrestrial globe, having once found existence, grew and developed in the matrix of the universe, and came forth in different forms and conditions, until gradually it attained this present perfection, and became adorned with innumerable beings....[Likewise], man, in the beginning of his existence and in the womb of the earth, like the embryo in the womb of the mother, gradually grew and developed, and passed from one form to another, from one shape to another, until he appeared with this beauty and perfection" (Some Answered Questions, pp. 182-83). Human societies have also evolved, according to Shoghi Effendi, by a "process of integration which, starting with the family, the smallest unit in the scale of human organization, must, after having called successively into being the tribe, the city-state, and the nation, continue to operate until it culminates in the unification of the whole world" (Promised Day is Come, p. 122).

4. The Purpose of Creation

The Bahá'í Writings compare the body of the world to the body of man. Every part of the human body is connected and coordinated with every other part by the unifying agency of the soul, so that each part discharges its function in complete harmony and with perfect regularity (Bahá'í World Faith, p. 340). None of the parts is nonessential, but each plays a part in the functioning of the whole, otherwise creation would be imperfect. "All existing being... have been created and organized, composed, arranged and perfected as they ought to be; the universe has no imperfection" (Some Answered Questions, p. 177). This perfection is not limited by time; it always exists, as the realities of things (i.e., the laws of nature) always exist and they always require the existence of beings in which their qualities are manifested.

Humankind is the chief member of the body of the world, for he is in the position of the mind in the human organism (Some Answered Questions, p. 178). As human maturity comes with the full operation of the mental capacities, the maturity of the world will come when humankind reaches spiritual maturity. In all the universal cycles, explains ‘Abdu'l-Bahá, "the divine and creative purpose...was the evolution of spiritual man....The tree of life has ever borne the same heavenly fruit" (Promulgation, p. 220). The unfolding of creation, which begins through God's overflowing love, desires continually, out of reciprocal love, to complete its cycle and return to its origin. This love is the force that causes the elements to transition through ever higher forms of life until the human reality appears, a being capable of consciously recognizing and worshiping its Creator, and finding God reflected, so to speak, in itself and all things. Bahá'u'lláh states that man's "capacity to know Him and to love Him...must needs be regarded as the generating impulse and the primary purpose underlying the whole of creation" (Gleanings, p. 65). The rest of creation, then, serves as the matrix for this process, and is a source for educating and training the human spirit (Hidden Words, pp. 32-33). "Man is the collective reality [of the universe]...the center where the glory of all the perfections of God shine forth--that is to say, for each name, each attribute, each perfection which we affirm of God there exists a sign in man....If man did not exist, the universe would be without result, for the object of existence is the appearance of the perfections of God. Therefore, it cannot be said there was a time when man was not. All that we can say is that this terrestrial globe at one time did not exist, and at its beginning man did not appear upon it. But from the beginning which has no beginning, to the end which has no end, a perfect manifestation [i.e., the perfect man] always exists" (Some Answered Questions, p. 196). Stated in another way, "If there were no man...the light of the mind would not be resplendent in this world. This world would be like a body without a soul. This world is also in the condition of a fruit tree, and man is like the fruit; without fruit the tree would be useless" (Some Answered Questions, p. 201).

Although the generality of humankind is far from perfect, perfection is latent in each person, for "in the creation of God there is no evil" (Some Answered Questions, p. 214). Each being is created perfect in its own degree, and this is its innate character. The differences between persons do not "imply good or evil but...simply a difference of degree" (Some Answered Questions, p. 212). ‘Abdu'l-Bahá explains that "certain qualities and natures innate in some men and apparently blameworthy are not so in reality. For example...greed, which is to ask for something more, is a praiseworthy quality provided that it is used suitably. So if a man is greedy to acquire science and knowledge, or to become compassionate, generous and just, it is most praiseworthy. If he exercises his anger and wrath against the bloodthirsty is very praiseworthy; but if he does not use these qualities in a right way, they are blameworthy" (Some Answered Questions, p. 215). It is this acquired capacity of man to use the natural qualities in an unlawful way (contrary to his own inner ontological structure) that is "the cause of the appearance of evil" (Some Answered Questions, p. 214). Because human beings have free will and the susceptibility to follow their lower nature, which is symbolized as Satan, they are "in need of divine education and inspiration," in other words, the teachings and guidance of God's Prophets.

The Bahá'í concept of "Manifestations of God" as intermediaries between God and man is an essential element of Bahá'í cosmology. "They are the divine Gardeners Who till the earth of human hearts and minds," causing man to "pass from degree to degree of progressive unfoldment until perfection is attained" (Promulgation, p. 295). Although such perfection is relative, not absolute, it is referred to in the holy books as the "second birth" into the spiritual life of the Kingdom and "eternal life" (Some Answered Questions, pp. 223-224, 242). In this station man comes to know God insofar as he comes to know and abide by the spiritual perfections latent in his own reality (Gleanings, pp. 326-327). The coming of one of these Manifestations of God renews the world spiritually and is referred to in the Bahá'í scriptures as "a new creation" (Kitáb-i-Íqán, p. 115).


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    [1] Provisional revised translation.

    [2] Provisional revised translation.

    [3] Provisional revised translation.

    [4] Provisional revised translation.

    [5] Normally, I would not mix science and philosophy, but it is interesting that a new theory called the holographic principle "holds that the universe is like a hologram: just as a trick of light allows a fully three-dimensional image to be recorded on a flat piece of film, our seemingly three-dimensional universe could be completely equivalent to alternative quantum fields and physical laws ‘painted' on a distant, vast surface" ("Information in the Holographic Universe," Scientific American (August 2003), p. 60).

    [6] Provisional revised translation.

    [7] Provisional revised translation.

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