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History of the theological position of the incomprehensibility-unknowability of God in past major Abrahamic religions and its importance and significance for contemporary Bahá'ís.
This is an updated version of the paper that appeared in Reason and Revelation.

If any fonts or symbols do not display properly, see Lambden's original version.

Mirrored with permission from, and with permission of publisher.

The Background and Centrality of Apophatic Theology in Bábí and Bahá'í Scripture

by Stephen Lambden

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
"God (ḥaqq) in His Essence (bi-dhátihi) and in His Own Self (bi-nafsihi) hath ever been unseen, inaccessible and unknowable." (Bahá'u'lláh, 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" (Bahá'u'lláh, Tablet to Hashim. GWB XCIV:192)

The following paper 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 Bahá'ís. 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 mention the sometimes related dimensions of the via negativa ("negative way") in Asian religious (Hindu and Buddhist) sources.

It will, I hope, become absolutely clear that the Bahá’í position, far from being new or unique in all its aspects, is rooted in the propositions of past religious and philosophical thinkers. The Bahá’í via negativa is most directly rooted in Bábí theology and in Islámic / Shí`í / Shaykhí texts which have apophatic ("negative") theological dimensions.

Any student of the Bábí and Bahá'í 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) language. The incomprehensibility of the nature of the Divine Essence (dhát; dhát al-dhát) is, in one way or another, frequently celebrated in Bábi and Bahá’í Scripture -- the extensive Arabic and Persian writings of Sayyid `Ali Muhammad the Báb (1819-1850) and Márzá Ḥusayn `Alí Bahá'-Alláh (1817-1892), the founders of the Bábí and Bahá’í religions respectively. In their writings apophatic ("negative") language is quite frequent. [1] No Bahá’í systematic theology could be written without locating the ultimate Divinity beyond the infinite cosmos and totally beyond human knowledge.

Any Bahá'í theology would however, identify the Manifestation of God as the locus of His indirect "knowability". While the Divine Essence is the centre of 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 of 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 Manifestation / Messengers of God.

The Bábá-Bahá’í 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.


"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, theogony or theodicy. It champions the oneness and supremacy of the inconceivable yet personal, universal God of Israel (Heb. `Eloha, `Elohim, YHWH = Yahweh, etc). Though hardly directly spelled out in Hebrew scripture 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). Direct vision of this transcendent God Who dwells in "thick darkness" (Heb. araphel, Exod 20:21; I Kings 8:12) 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 (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 was greatly underlined. Biblical anthropomorphisms were often avoided or reinterpreted. Both the writing and the uttering of His personal Divine name YHWH ("Yahweh") came to be strictly outlawed -- it was indirectly pronounced (vowelled) 'Adonai ("Lord"). The Qumran Jewish faction (Essenes?) which preserved 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, n.d.:70).

Certain Jewish thinkers and various Christian Biblical exegetes have found 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 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)

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 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). God is only knowable through His works.

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). [2]

The late Harvard Professor of Hebrew Literature and Philosophy H. A. Wolfson (d. 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) and 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) -- for example, the intermediaries, "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).

The largely occasional Rabbinic perspectives extant in the Midrashic and Talmudic literatures (1st BCE -> 6th cent. CE) contains 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, 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, Baya 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)

The great Spanish Jewish philosopher Maimonides (Moseh ben Maimon, c. 1135-1204) in his 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).

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.


As with the Hebrew Bible and Rabbinic literatures, the New Testament does not contain a systematic doctrine of God (Gk. theos; kyrios = `Lord') -- there is neither a use of the word trinity nor a sustained deification of Jesus of Nazareth. Jesus Christ frequently spoke intimately of the God of the Hebrew Bible as the divine "Father" (Aram. `Abba') though His transcendence was not compromised. The Pauline and pseudo-Pauline letters He cannot be visioned for "No one has ever seen God.." (John 1:18a). As a divine manifestation however, Christ the "Son" has indirectly "made him known" (Jn 1:18b cf. Jn 6:46). [3]

From the early second century CE occasional and then numerous Christians writers in one way or another held to a negative theology. The "incomprehensibility" of God was widely affirmed. The partially preserved apocryphal Preaching of Peter (Kerygma Petrou 110 CE?) contains one of the earliest explicit Christian references to God being "incomprehensible"; the "Incomprehensible who comprehends all things" (Hennecke II:99 cf. ERel. 6:19).

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 in part to the influence of eclectic contemporary Middle Platonism and Hellenistic Judaism, a negative definition of God "appears occasionally and incidentally among the apostolic fathers.. and is a significant feature among the apologists (Palmer, 1983:224; see Grant, 1988). Like Philo, various early Christian apologists use such negative theological epithets as "uncreated", "uncontained", "unnameable" (Daniélou, 1973:323f, cf. their uses of "invisible", "impalpable", "impassible"; "uncontainabele"). By this means they underlined the transcendence of God.

Justin Martyr (c.100-165 CE) was perhaps the most important second century apologist. He sates 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).

Son of a Christian martyr the erudite Origen (c.185-c.254 CE), perhaps 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).

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' 6x9 = 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 was partly under the influence of eclectic Middle and Neo-Platonic philosophy -- which directly or indirectly held to the transcendence/incomprehensibility of the `Absolute' -- that many of the Church Fathers championed a negative theology in which the incomprehensibility of God is fundamental.

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 a literalist incarnationalism nor 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." (Hanson, 1970:448).

The various major Cappodocian theologians of the fourth cent. CE. 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. In 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 marvellous exegetical treatise On the Life of Moses,

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).

The writings of the unknown philosopher-monk Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite (fl. c. 500 CE cf. Acts 17:34) 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). 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]") [4] 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" (agnásia). 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.

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.

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 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).

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) frequently referred to the All-Powerful God, as One hidden Deus Absconditas (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)

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).

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 Alláh (probably a contraction of al+iláh = `the deity') is the Islamic proper name indicative of the Essence of God (occurring over 2,500 times in the Qur'án). It is basically the same as several of the Biblical Hebrew (and other Semitic) designations of God (El, Eloah, Elohim). According to Gardet, the term Alláh describes God "in his inaccessible nature as a deity both unique and one (tawád) whose essence remains unrevealed.." (ER 6:29). Without bypassing the divine providential immanence, the Qur'án 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): "Vision comprehendeth Him not, but He comprehendeth [all] vision". He is One incomparable -- "There is naught like unto Him" (Q.42:11; cf. 16:60; 32:27) -- and supremely "All-High", "Transcendent" or "Exalted" (al-`alíy Q. 4:34; 22:62; 31:30).

The Arabic third person masculine pronoun هو huwa = `He is' is many times used of God (Alláh) in the Qur'án. An extended form of this word هوية huwiyya (lit. "He-ness") indicates the Divine Self Identity, the Ipseity. [5] [=60] In medieval and later Islamic mysticism it was a term used to denote the transcendent Divinity. In his Meccan Revelations (al-Futūḥát al-Makkiyya) and other works, Shaykh Muḥyí al-Dín Ibn al-`Arabá (d.1270 CE)

It has been said that Ibn `Arabí, who championed the unknowability and unmanifest nature of the Absolute Essence, "experienced the vision of the highest divine essence in the shape of the word hū, "He," luminous between the arms of the letter CHECK há’ " (Schimmel, 1975:270).

There is a section on huwiyya (“He-ness”) in the important al-Insán al-kámil.. ("The Perfect Man...") of `Abd al-Karám al-Jílí (d.c.832/1428). This Persian Shí`íte Sufí writes in this work:

"The Ipseity of the 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 (báin al-wáidáya); it alludeth unto His Being (kun) and His Essence (dhát) by means of His Names and Attrubutes: `The Ipesity (al-huwiyya) is the hiddenness of the Divine Essence which is Uniquely One (wáhid)...” (Jílí, al-Insán [1956] 1:96-7).

Also related to the Arabic letter "h" (há') and هو huwa (`He is') is the designation of the Divine Essence dhát, (loosely) `the sphere of the Divine Ipseity'. Traditionally it lies `above' and `beyond' the ever more elevated succession of spheres or `worlds', [1] Nását ("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"); [4] Láhūt ("the realm of the Divine theophany"). The term هاهوت Háhūt is modelled on the names of these `realms' -- themselves rooted in Christian Aramaic or Syriac theological terminology (see Arnaldez, `Láhūt and Násūt'). References to Háhūt are found in the writings of Muslim theosophical writers and mystics.

The Qur'án accords God various "Names" indicative, anong other things, of the Divine perfections. Certain of these Qur'ánic `Names of God' are traditionally reckoned among the ninety-nine `Most Beautiful Names [of God]' (al-asmá ' al-ḥusná, see Q. 20:8). Certain of them indicate the divine unknowability just as others indicate the divine immanence. Of obvious relevence in the former respect is God's being al-ghayb ("the Mystery", "the Unseen") which occurs a number of times in the Qur'án (2:3 see Kassis, 479-80) Relevant also is the hapax legomenon (`once occuring') and Divine attribute, the name amad (loosely, "Impenetrable", "Eternal", "Everlasting") which occurs only in the centrally important Sūrat al-Tawḥíd ("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). The same writer has translated the name of God `Aẓím 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'án 57:3 not only describes God as the "First and the Last" but also the "Manifest and the Hidden (ẓáhir wa'l-báin)." While His attribute ẓáhir implies the possibility of His being "disclosed", "manifest" or "outward", báṭin indicates his being "Hidden", "Unmanifest" or "Inward".

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-dhát) as well as of all the Divine Names (asmá') and Qualities (ṣifát) as related to and "contained" in the Divine Nature." (Nasr, 1987:312). The many attributes of God (ṣifát Alláh) are fundamentally appellations and actions of the Divinity. From early medieval times attempts were made to systematize and classify them. [6] The relationship of the various Attributes and the Essence was much debated. The most basic attribute was wujūd = "Existence" which has been equated with the dhát Alláh, the "Essence of God" and with the nafs Alláh or "Self of God" which is several times mentioned in the Qur'án (Q.3:28; 6:54; 5:116; 20:41).

Some Muslim "theologians", furthermore, spoke of the `Attributes of the Essence' (ṣifát al-dhát) 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, 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) [7] Sh í`í Muslims have often made a sharp distinction between the attributes of the divine dhát ("Essence") and the other divine attributes which they generally understood figuratively. Worth quoting in this connection is Imám `Alá's declaration: "Absolute unity (kamál al-tawhád) excludeth all attributes (al-ṣifát)" (cited AQA 3:15 = SV:15).

Seven divine Attributes are sometimes called the "Names of the Essence". Ibn `Arabí reckoned them as [1] "The Living" (al-ḥayy), [2] "the Knowing (al-`alám), [3] "the Wanting" (al-márid), [4] "the Powerful" (al-qadár), [5] "the Speaking" (al-mutakallim / al-qá'il), [6] "the Hearing" (al-samá`) and [7] "the Seeing" (al-baṣír). [8]

In sayings attributed to the Prophet Muhammad and the [Twelver] Imáms contained in a multitude of Sunná and Shí`í sources, many statements underlining the exalted transcencdence or unknowability of God are registered. A well-known Prophetic tradition cited by al-Ghazali (d.1111 CE) in his Mishkat al-anwár ("The Niche of Lights") -- and occasionally referred to by the Báb and Bahá'-Alláh -- has it that, "Before God are 70[000] veils of Light and Darkness. Should they be unveiled, the Splendours of His Countenance (subuhát wajhihi) would assuredly set ablaze all who discern Him with their vision." (cited al-Gházálí, 1964:39)

In summing up aspects of Shá`á cosmology it has been noted that "The essence of the Creator is separated from the creation by veils (ḥejáb), curtains (setr), and pavilions (sorádeq) impregated with the divine attributes.." (EIr 6:317). [9]

Among the significant traditions of the Imáms cited by Kulayná is his Uṣ ul al-Káfí is the following attributed to Abū Ja`far,

"Talk together about the creation of God (khalq Alláh) but do not talk about God Himself for direct discussion about God increases naught but the bewilderment the one who indulges in it." (Káfí, I:92)

"Talk together about everything but never talk about the Essence of God (dhát Alláh)." (ibid).

The inacessibility and unknowability of God are indirectly expressed in Islamic cosmology in a multitude of different ways. Neoplatonic influence was early felt in Islam. 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' (Uthálájiyá Arisṭáṭálís). Widely known from the mid 9th century CE the Pseudo-Aristotelain `Theology' was commented upon by early Muslim philosophical theologians; including al-Kindá (d.c.870 CE) and Al-Farabá (d.950) the so-called `Second Teacher' (al-mu`allim al-thání) whose highly influential `Opinions of the Inhabitants of the Virtuous City' commences with a Neoplatonically influenced chapter `On the First Being' (Lawson, 1991:118). One of the Arabic Plotinus sources Fá al-ilm al-iláhá ("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). This is echoed in many Islamic and Bábá-Bahá’í sources.

In addition to writings of Plotinus, certain works of Porphry and Proclus were also available in Arabic "as a result of the Hellenistic scholars having took 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 utilized by Avicenna (Ibn Sina d.1037 CE), Averroes and other Islamic theologians and philosophers. It had a significant effect upon major Jewish and Christian medieval philosophers and theologians.

Fazlur Rahman succinctly sums 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 reinterpreted 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."

At one point in his Mishkat al-anwár ("Niche of Lights") the great Muslim theologian Abu Hámid al-Ghazali (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.." (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

The aforementioned Ibn `Arabá underlined the unknowability and unmanifest nature of the transcendent Divine Essence: "The Divine Essence (al-dhát al-iláhiyya) cannot be understood by the rational faculty..." (Ibn `Arabi, Futuhát II:257; Chittick, 1989:60). The Divine Essence is transcendent above the cosmos, "independent of the worlds" (Q. 3:97 ibid II:502). The Great Shaykh often cited the 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 implies in the Qur' ánic phrase, "God would have you beware of Himself (nafsihi)" (3:28/30).

Chittick sums up key aspects of Ibn `Arabá'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 (tamkán). 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 become 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. (Futuḥát 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 aproprlate to temporal originatlon." (Futuḥát II:557 cited Chittick, 1989:62).

Nascent Ismá`ílí (Shí`í) philosophy was strongly influenced by Neoplatonic thought: "leading members of the Ismá`ílí 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 dá`í ("summoner") al-Nasafá (d. Bukhárá 332/943) who was influenced by an Arabic recension of Plotinus' Enneads -- in the form of the Pseudo-Aristotelan `Theology' (Walker 1993:40f). His ideas were developed by Abū Ya`qūb al-Sijistání (fl. mid. 10th cent. CE?). For al-Sijistání the ultimate Godhead is beyond `being' and attributes; the Divine Identity (innáyah) is 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 beyond unknowing. Before the God Who transcends being and non-being is the negation of the negated:

"There does not exist a tanzíh ["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." (Kitáb al-Iftikhár, cited Walker 1993:78).

Among other Ismá'ílí texts the unknowability of the God beyond attributes is all but registered in the Rasá'il Ikhwán al-safá' ("Treatises of the Brethren of Purity" 10th cent. CE?) which show the influence of various schools of Hellenistic wisdom (Netton 1982:39f).

Sayyid `Alí Muhammad Shirazi, the Báb (d. 1850 CE).

There is hardly a major or minor work of the Báb which does not contain a celebration of the Divine Transcendence. For the Messiah figure from Sháráz, the absolute Divine Essence (dhát al-dhát) is `Wholly Other'. Numerous exordiums to scores of the Báb'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 Báb's maintaining of the transcendence of God that He changed the basmalah (= "In the Name of God the Merciful the Compassionate" ) to "In the Name of God, the Inaccessible (al-amna`), the Most Holy (al-aqdas)." The last two Divine Attributes of this classical Islamic invocation -- present before all but one of the 114 suras of the Qur'án -- are replaced with two non-qur'ánic superlatives which, in one way or another indicate, the ultimate Godhead being set apart in His transcendent Holiness. Qur'án 42:11b ("There is naught like unto Him") is frequently quoted in his writings from the Qayyám al-asmá' (suras 30, 32, 33, etc) until the Kitáb al-asmá'.

Tafsír Du`a al-ṣabáh.

Among the minor works of the Báb is his Tafs’ír Du`a al-ṣabáh, a commentary upon a phrase within a dawn prayer ascribed to Imám `Alá (d. 40/661) the cousin, son-in-law and successor of the Arabian Prophet Muhammad (INBAMC 40:155-162). [10] The phrase commented upon is part of a prayer in which God is addressed as One "the proof of Whose Essen ce is furnished through this same Essence (dalla `alá dhátihi bi-dhátihi)" (Qummí, 1989:92). The transcendent Divine Essence is really only adequately testified to Its Own Self. Only God Himself can comprehend His "Essential Reality" (dhátiyyat) 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 Báb, the transcendence and unknowability of God is quite frequently underlined.

Tafsir hadíth of al-`amá'

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 (`amá'), above it [or Him] air (hawá') and below it [or Him] air". [11] 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-Karím al-Jílí (1365-1420) `amá' indicated the absolute hiddenness of the transcendent Godhead. It signfies "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 (Nicholson, 1967:94-6).

Influenced by theosophical Sufism, both the Báb and Bahá'-Alláh used Sufi terminology extensively including the term `amá' though they rejected the monistic ontology that sometimes informs and determines certain attempts to locate the mystery of `amá'. In Bábí-Bahá'í scripture it is not always indicative of the hidden and unknowable essence of God.

In one of his early epistles the Báb commented in some detail on the `tradition of `amá' [12] He states that this tradition indicates God's isolated independence. The term al-`amá' ("the Cloud") only inadequately indicates the Divine dhát ("essence"). [13] In his interpretation, the Báb seems to underline God's absolute otherness to such an extent that the term `amá' only indirectly hints at his transcendent unknowability. God's nafs ("Logos-Self") and dhát ("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 Báb expounds the ḥadíth of al-`amá' outrules those theosophical interpretations that are monistically oriented. The term `amá' indicates God's absolute otherness. It is derived from al-`amá or al-`amán ("blindness", "unknowing") for vision is blinded before God's Face and eyes are incapable of beholding His Countenance. `Amá' is indicative of a Reality that is "Unconditioned" (muṭlaq), "Absolute" (irf), "Uncompounded" (bat) and "Definitive" (? bátt ?).

For the Báb the `ḥadáth of al-`amá' enshrines subtle and bewildering mysteries surrounding the Sinaitic theophany (see Qur'án 7:142). It was not the unknowable essence of God (dhát al-azal) that appeared in the "Kingdom of `amá' (malakát al-`amá') 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 `amá' as God's absolute essence or a monistic type `theophany or the Divine Essence' (tajallá al-dhát) but the disclosure of the Divine Light (nár) "unto, through and in His Self (nafs)." In abstruse language the Báb counters the monistic type interpretation of the relationship between `amá' and the `theophany of the Divine Essence' (tajallá al-dhát) found in certain Sufi treatises. [14]

Letter to Mírzá Ḥasan Waqáyí`-Nigár

In a letter addressed to Mírzá Ḥasan Waqáyí`-nigár, the Báb comments upon various qur'ánic texts including the Qur'ánic phrase, "We are nearer to him [to man] than his jugular vein (abl al-warád)." (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-dhát). God has eternally "detached" the Divine "Names and Attributes" from referring to the "court" of His transcendent "Presence" (adratihi) -- they apply primarily to His "Will" (al-mashiyyat). Nearness to the Divine Essence is impossible except by virtue of the theophany (tajallá) of His "Self" (nafs) the locus of His "Will" and of the Messenger or Manifestation of God. Qur'án 50:16b alludes to the "sign of God" (áyat Alláh) which is found within the inmost human reality which is (symbolically speaking) the human "heart" (fū'ád) (see INBAMC 40:18183ff).

Tafs’ír Laylat al-qadr ("Commentary on the Night of Power")

Probably dating from time of the Báb's imprisonment in Ādhirbayján (1848-9), the Tafs’ír Laylat al-qadr ("Commentary on the Night of Power") is a succinct commentary on a phrase in sára 97 (Sūrat al-qadr) of the Qur'án. The sublimity of God's "Essential Reality" (al-dhátiyyat) 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 (abhá) that that of the Divine Being. Human beings only inadequately testify to the "Divinity" (uluhiyya) and "Lordship" (rububiyya) of the transcendent God Who is beyond human comprehension (see INBAMC 69:14f).

Persian and Arabic Bayáns ("Expositions")

Both the Persian and Arabic Bayáns ("Expositions") of the Báb contain clear statements about the transcendence and incomprehensibility of the Godhead. Some key theological issues are set down in the first two bábs ("gates") of the 4th Wáid ("Unity") of the Persian Bayán. Persian Bayán IV:2 discusses the two stations (maqámayn) of the Nuqṭa ("Point") or "Sun of Truth" (shams-i ḥaqíqat = Manifestation of God). The first station is that of his being the Divine Manifestation (mahar-i iláhiyya) representative of the ghayb-i dhát ("Unseen Essence"). As the Voice of the ghayb-i dhát ("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`álí) is He above any mention or praise -- sanctified beyond both pristine whiteness (káfūr lit. Camphor) and the acme of actualization (jawhar imá' á). 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" (Bayán-i farsá IV:1, 105 cf. Bayán `Arabí, IV:1).

The second báb ("gate") of the 4th Wáid ("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 (báb) is that the Eternal Divine Essence (dhát-i azal).. hath ever been and will ever remain incomprehensible, indescribable, beyond characterization and human vision.." (Bayán-i farsá IV:2, 110; cf. Bayán-i `arabá IV:2).

Perhaps addressed to a Shaykhi (and Bábi?) the Persian Dalá'il- i Sab`ah opens with a testimony to God's uniqueness, eternality and unknowability. In the light of his claim to be the Qá'im a shift in the Báb's eschatological views can be seen in the Dalá'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 Shá'á messianism are given, in the light of their alleged fulfilment, non-literal interpretations (see Lambden, 1995x:00). The eschatological "meeting with God" (liqá' Alláh; see Qur'án 13:2, etc) is not a literal coming into the presence of the eternal divine essence (dhát-i azal) but the meeting with the divine manifestation of God (mahar-i haqáqat): with, in fact, the Báb on the mount of Máká (or wherever he resides: Dalá'il, 31f;cf. 57f).

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 Bábí or Bahá'í scripture. In a sermon ascribed to Imám `Alá known as the Khuba al-ṭutunjiyya ("Sermon of the Two Gulfs") the Imám at one point declares, "I saw God (rūyat Alláh) and Paradise through the vision of the eye (ráy al-`ayn)." Taken literally this statement is highly controversial. [15] al-Lawámi` al-badá` ("The Wondrous Brilliances", 1846/7 CE), the Báb interpreted it to refer Imám `Alí's inner "vision of the Primal Will of God" (rū 'yat al-mashiyya) and not direct vision of the transcendent Deity (INBAMC 40:179). In the previously referred to Risalá Du`a al-sabáh the same passage from the Khuba al-utunjiyya is quoted and interpreted in terms of the "vision of the Divine Theophany" (rá'yat al-tajallá) understood as a Divine Manifestation not a disclosure of the Divine Essence (INBAMC 40:161).

Apart from underlining the transcendence and unknowability of the Essence of God the Báb also emphasised the presence of the "Day of God" through His manifestation. He frequently claimed (secondary) Divinity and also bestowed it upon others. There exist writings of the Báb cited by Bahá'u'lláh in his Lawḥ-i Sarráj (c. 1867) which make it clear that a "pleroma" of Bábis shared in his eschatological "Divinity" (al-uláhiyya) and "Lordship" (al-rubūbiyya). He stated that God conferred "divinity" and "Lordship" upon whomsoever He pleased (see MA 7:64).

Bahá'í Apophatic Theology

As with Bábí scripture the Bahá'í texts are strictly monotheistic; or rather super-monotheistic. The doctrine of the Divine Oneness (tawḥíd) is uncompromisingly upheld; there is no place for anthropomorphism, anthropopathism, pantheism or any unio mystica with the Unknowable Godhead. On one level Baha'-Allah understood tawḥíd ("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 (tawḥíd).." (GWB LXXXIV)

It also indicates regarding the non-ontological relationship between God and the Manifestation of God as something unitative , something "One and the same" (ibid) as well as affirmning the essential oneness of the divine Manidestations of God.

Lawḥ-i madánat al-tawḥíd

Towards the beginning of his centrally important Lawḥ-i madánat al-tawḥíd ("Tablet of the City of the Divine oneness" c. 1868 CE) -- one of the cornerstones of any emergent Bahá’í theology -- Baha'-Allah categorically and repeatedly asserts the transcendent incomprehensibility of God:

"Praise be to God, the All-Possesing, 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 (maáhir al-sifát) implore Him, from the Sinai of Holiness (ár 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 Bahá'-Alláh goes on to closely relate tawḥíd (the Divine "oneness", "unicity") to the "oneness" or essential unity of the Divine Manifestations of God.

In Bahá’í 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

"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 Manifestation of God Who are considered "one" in their purpose and religion.

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

Baha'-Allah's early Lawh-i kull al-ta`ám ("Tablet of All Food" c. 1854 CE) is basically a mystical commentary upon Qur'án 3:87 which, he explains, has "subtle meanings infinite in their infinitude". Towards the beginning of this "tablet" the mystical significance of "food" (a`ám) 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-háhūt ("the Throne of He-ness [Ipseity]") which is related to the "Paradise of the divine oneness" (jannat al-aadiyya).

Relative to this realm and the "paradise of the Divine Oneness", none -- not even Bahá'-Alláh himself -- can expound even a letter of Qur'án 3:87. The realm of háhát is that of "the mystery of Endless Duration (sirr al-samadániyyat), "Unique Sonship" (ibniyya al-ahadaniyyat), "Incomparable Israelicity" (Isrá'iliyyat al-firdániyyat) and "Resplendent Selfhood" (nafsániyyat al-lama`aniyyat). Here, perhaps, are the unfathomable mysteries of Qur'án 3:87 known only to God their "Creator and Lifegiver" whose esoteric and exoteric aspects are one and the same. [See further: Tablet of All Food.]

The Seven Valleys (Haft vádí)

In the fourth of the Seven valleys, the `Valley of Unity' (vádí) Bahá'-Alláh 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 (ḥulū), nor see in them the descent of the worlds of God into the grades of the creatures.. For God is, in His Essence (bi-dhátihi muqaddas), holy above ascent and descent, entrance and exit; He hath through all eternity been free of the attributes of human creatures (ṣifát-i khalq), and ever will remain so. No man hath ever known Him; no soul hath ever found the pathway to His Being. Every mystic knower (`urufá) hath wandered far astray in the valley of the knowledge (vádi ma`rifatish) of Him; every saint (awliyá) hath lost his way in seeking to comprehend His Essence (dhátish). Sanctified is He above the understanding (`irfán) of the wise (`árif); 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 Imám `Alá]: "O Thou, the One Whose Essence alone showeth the way to His Essence (dalla `alá dháthih bi-dhátihi)", 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 Friend3' hath said, "But for Thee, we had not known Thee," and the Beloved' hath said, "nor attained Thy presence." (SV:22-23). [16]

The Ipseity and the Tafsír-i Hū’ هو [Huwa] c. 1859?)

Bahá'u'lláh wrote a highly theosophical `Commentary on "He is"' (Tafsír-i Hū [Huwa] c. 1859?) -- evidently written soon after the `Hidden Words' (Kalimat-i Maknunih c. 1858 CE), one of which is cited and interpreted (Arabic no. 3). It contains many interesting theological statements about the Divine Identity (huwa, "He-ness"), "Essence" (dhát), Names (asmá') and Attributes (sifát). [17] and was largely written in explanation of a passage from a writing of the the Báb (?) addressed to a "Mirror" (mirát) of the Bábi dispensation (probably Mirzá Yahyá). The issue of the relationship of the "Mirror", the divine Names and Attributes, the "Most Beautiful Names" (al-asmá' al-usná'), and the Divine Identity (Ar. huwa = "He is" Per. Hu) 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-asmá' al-usná') -- communicates with His creation. While the totality of the Divine "Names" (al-asmá') revolve around the "Divine Will" (mashiyyat) all the Divine "Attributes" (al-ifát) are realized through His "Intention" (irada). Everything circumambulates the Divine and Unfathomable Essence (dhát) who manifestation (tajallá) is realized through His major Prophets or Manifestations. The Báb, among other things, is referred to as the "Fountainhead of His Essence" (manba` al-dhátihi) and the "Locus of His Activity" (`Source of His Action'; madar fi`lihi).

Bahá'-Alláh explains how the divinely revealed verse indicates that all the divine "Names" (al-asmá') 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" (há') and "W" (wáw) which are indicative of its "inner" and "outer" dimesions respectivey. The inner dimension of the Divine Identity, Bahá'-Alláh 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-dhát al-bata al-qamáma). When the hidden "H" is established upon "enthroned, eternal Temple" (al-haykal al`arshiyya al-azaliyya), "the Beauty of the Divine Ipseity" (jamál 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" (mirát) of all the divine "Names" (al-asmá') and "Attributes" (al-ifá 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-dhát bi'l-dhátihi) 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 dhátihi) is impossible.

Huwa Alláh هوالله ("He is God")

`Abdu'l-Bahá' wrote a number of important in explanation of huwa Alláh ("He is God") -- which occus a number of times in the Qur'án (e.g. 28:70) and is widely very widely used in Islam. As in the Tafs’ír -i Há 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 Bahá'í scriptural Tablets (alwáḥ), begins by acknowledging its use in the orient and its being widely prefixed to sacred (Bábí and Bahá'í) Tablets. The central Bahá’í explanation is that it is indicative of incomprehensibility of the One, Divine Essence (haqáqat-i dhát-i ahadiyyat). Which is beyond human concepualization. It addition it indicates the "Beauty of the Promised One" Who is the "Sun of Reality" as the manifest Divinty (= Bahá'u'lláh) in alusion to whose name `Abdu'l-Bahá ' commences his writings (see Ma’idih IX:22-3).

Another Tablet written to a western Bahá’í reads,

"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 "Dawningplace 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." [18]

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

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

Written in reply to a number of written questions about the expected Muslim messiah (the Mahdí) posed by Sayyid Yúsuf-i-Sidihí (Isfḥáhání), a year or so before the Kitáb-i áqá n, Bahá'-Alláh's Jawáhiru'l-Asrár ("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 vádí 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 (maqámát) 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" (madánat al-tawhád) there is a passage explaining that is never manifested in His own Being (kaynuniyya) or His Essential Reality (dhátiyya) 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). Also worth noting in this context is the fact that in the Jawáhir al-asrár seven mystic stages are outlined, the last of them being a transcendent city without name or designation and unutterable (86ff). [19]

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

Key theological passages in the Kitáb-i Iqan ("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 facew of all beings" (KI).

In Bábí and Bahá’í scripture the use of the Qur'ánic Divine attribute ṣamad (see above, 112:2) is fairly common.

High Babi-Bahá'í theology and theological detranscendentalization

In Bábá and Bahá’í scripture the Manifestation of God , as the Perfect Mirror of the Will of Divinity, is accorded secondary Divinity and Godhood. This in a definitely suborninationalist sense. Language about God is detranscendentalized or applied to the divine Mazhar-i ilahi or Manifestation of God. [20] The Manifestation of God is sometimes referred to as the "Logos-Self" (nafs) or "Self of God"(nafs Alláh) and occasionally in Babi-Bahá'í scripture even as the "Essence of God" (dhát Alláh) 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 dhát Alláh there exists an Essence (dhát) behind this divine Essence (dhát) which is the utterly transcendent and unknowable. The Ultimate Godhead is the primary, most exalted `Essence of Essences' or Absolute Essence of God (dhát Alláh).

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 Bahá’í, Jamál-i Burájirdi (d. c. ), Bahá'-Alláh reckons "acceptable" (maqbál) diverse perceptions of His claims as long as no contention results. Some Bahá’ís 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 Alláh) reckoning the directives of the Manifestation of God as truly divine in origin (Iqtidarát, 218f; Fananapazir, 1991).

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

The Might of the Everlasting One (ṣamadániyya = the Essence of God) is superlatively great! Nay rather, He is above everything great and supremely great. Greater is He than every Qá'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-ániyyá) from the befitting mention of the inhabitants of the earth and the heavens" (Text in INBMC 66:187-205 and in part in Ma'idih Asmani 4:26-45). [21]

In a number of Tablets, Bahá'-Alláh has commented upon a the saying often attributed to Imám `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"). And on the Presence of God: ESW:118, "God in His Essence and in His Own Self hath ever been unseen, inacessible and unknowable."

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

While the doctrine of God's unknowability is the foundation of Bahá’í 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 Prophets. There exists an important Tablet of Bahá'-Alláh 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).

Bahá'-Alláh notes that Sa`dá alludes to Qur'án 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 (tajallá-i rabbáná) may be experienced -- the "revelation of the Best-Beloved" (tajallá mabáb). Forgetfulness of God and worldliness however, may -- despite His Proximity -- cause the Divine to be remote. Having interpreted this verse in this manner, Bahá'-Alláh 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."

Numerous written expository statments of a theological nature were made by Bahá'u'lláh's eldest son `Abbas entitled `Abdu'l-Bahá' (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 dhát-i shay`)" and 2) "the knowledge of its qualities (ma`rifat-i if át-i shay`)" (Mufawadát 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 (haqáqat-i rububiyyat) is unknown with regard to its essence (dhá t) and is known with regard to its attributres (sifát)" (ibid 176 trans. SAQ 59/220-1).

In a Tablet to the Swiss entomologist Dr. Auguste Forel (d. 1931) AB reiterated the theological principle that God is beyond known attributes:

"As to the attributes (sifát) and perfections (kamálát) such as will (`intention' irádih) knowledge and power and other ancient attributes that we ascribe to that Divine Reality (haqáqat-i láhátiyyih), these are the signs that reflect the existence of beings in the visible plane and not the Absolute Perfection of the Divine Essence (haqáqat-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 (haqáqat-i kulliyya) are only in order to deny [negate] imperfections (salb-i-naqá'is), rather than to assert [affirm] perfections (thubut-i-kamálát) 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 (sifát) and the perfections (kamálát) of God refer to these Holy Manifestations (of God, mazáhir-i muqadassih). There is no access to anything else: "the way is barred and seeking forbidden."

... for the essential names and attributes of God (asmá' va ifát dhátiyya iláhiyya) are identical with His Essence (`ayn-i dhát), 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.." (Mufawadát, 113; SAQ 37/148-9).

In a Tablet to a western Bahá’í `Abdu'l-Bahá' 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).

Shoghi Effendi (c. 1896-1957)

For Bahá’ís Shoghi Effendi (c. 1896-1957) the great-grandson of Bahá'u'llah and head of the Bahá’í religion for thirty six years, communicated authoratative expositions of Bahá’í doctrine. In his compilation of selected English language translations from scriptural Tablets (alwáh) of the Founder of the Bahá’í Faith entitled, Gleanings from the Writings of Bahá'u'lláh (1st ed. 1949?) he placed at the opening of this volume a lengthy extract addressed to a certain Aqá 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 Bahá'u'lláh (1937). Therein the authoratative Bahá’í view of station of the central figures of the Bahá'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" Bahá'u'lláh 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).

His opinion touching upon the teaching about the unknowability of God is indirectly expressed in a letter of 1929. `Abdu'l-Bahá is said to have made a distinction between the standpoint of the gnostics (= ?) and the religionists. It is stated that

"`Abdu'l-Bahá 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-Bahá 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 Bahá’í theology Shoghi Effendi also states in this work that Bahá'u'lláh 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 Bahá’í negative theology outrule 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 Bahá’í 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". [22]

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.


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 openness 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 Bahá’ís. Bahá’ís can, however, supplicate God with words in the sixth Valley of Astonishment of the Seven Valleys, of Bahá'-Alláh "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." Bahá'í philosophers and theologians might be well advised to tale up Sells' focus on apophasis.

Bahá'í apophatic theology clearly and in very many places exists in Babi-Bahá’í 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 Bahá'í 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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· ABL = `Abdu'l-Bahá in London. London: BPT., 19

· Mufawaḍát = Some Answered Questions (Persian). Karachi: Bahá'í Publishing Trust, n.d.

· SAQ = Some Answered Questions. Wilmette, Illinois: Bahá'í Publishing Trust, 1981.

· TAB = Tablets of Abdul-Baha Abbas. Vol. 1 New York: Bahá'í Publishing Committee, 1930.

· Báb, Sayyid `Alí Muhammad, the

· Bayán-i Farsá n.p. n.d.

· Bayán-i `Arabá n.p. n.d.

· Tafsír Du`a al-abá. INBAMC 40:155-162.

· Lawámi` al-badá`. INBA 40:164-180.

· Tafs’ír Du`a al-aba. INBMC 40:155-162.

· Tafs’ír adáth al-`amá'. TBAMS 6007C:1ff.

Aquinas, Thomas

· 1964 Summa Theologiæ Vol. 1 Christian Theology (1a I) trans. Thomas Gilby Cambridge: Blackfriars.

Armstrong, L.G.

· 1967 The Cambridge History of Late Greek and Early Medieval Philosophy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

Arnaldez, R.

· `Láhát and Nását' EI2 V:611-614.

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· ESW = Lawh-i mubáraka khitab bih Shaykh Muhammad Taqi. Cairo, n.d.

· trans. = Epistle to the Son of the Wolf. trans. Shoghi Effendi. Wilmette, Illinois, rev. ed. 1976.

· GWB = Gleanings from the Writings of Bahá'u'lláh, trans. + comp. Shoghi Effendi, London: Bahá'í Publishing Trust, 1949 / Wilmette, Illinois: BPT., 1978.

· HW = Kalimát-i maknunih. Hoffheim-Langenhaim, 1983 / 140 BE.

· trans. The Hidden Words (trans.Shoghi Effendi). London: Bahá'í Publishing Trust, 1975.

· KI = Kitáb-i áqán, Hofheim-Langenhain: Bahá'í-Verlag, 1980 / 136 Badá`.

· trans. Shoghi Effendi. Kitáb-i Iqán: The Book of Certitude. London: Bahá'í Publishing Trust, 1961.

· Lawḥ-i Sarráj. Ma’idih 7:4-118.

· PM = Munaját.. harat-i-Bahá'u'lláh. Rio de Janeiro: Editoria Bahá'í Brasil, 138/1981.

· comp. & trans. Shoghi Effendi. Prayers and Meditations. London: BPT., 1957.

· SV = The Seven Valleys and The Four Valleys, Trans. by `Alí Kuli Khan assisted by Marzieh Gail Wilmette; 5th ed. Wilmette Illin.: BPT 1978.

Barth, Karl.

· 1957/76 Church Dogmatics. Vol II/1. Edinburgh:T&T Clark.

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· `A Brief Description of Neoplatonism' in Baine Harris (ed.), The Significance of Neoplatonism. International Society for Neoplatonic Studies: Old Dominion University. Norfolk, Virginia.

Berkhof, Louis.

· Systematic Theology Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust

Bettenson, H.

· 1969 The Early Christian Fathers London: Oxford University Press.

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[Additions to this article, 2006]

Tatian (fl.c. 160)

Another early Christian reference to the incomprehensibility of God is found in an early compilation entitled The Shepherd of Hermas (c. 140 CE?). In the first commandment conmtained therein God is reckoned One Who "comprehendeth all things" being Himself "incomprehensible".

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 "Dawningplace of Divinity" and the "manifestation of Deity." He is the "Ultimate Goal," 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 [460] it pure imagination woven by man and is surrounded, not the surrounding. Consequently, it returns finally to the realm of suppositions and conjectures." (Bahá’í Scriptures (ed. Horace Holley, ) No. 847, pp. 459-60. = Ma’idih IX:22-23).

Fazlur Rahman Islam writes "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 reinterpreted 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. 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 philosophy. 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.

From Greek epistemological and metaphysical theories, again, the Muslim philosophers acquired the idea of a radical dualism between body and mind, which under Greco-Christian influences had also developed into an out-and-out ethical dualism between the material and the spiritual. This affected the Muslim philosophers' eschatological teaching very fundamentally. The philosopher al-Farabi held that only the soul survived in an individual and, further, that only the souls of thinkers survived, 'undeveloped' minds being destroyed at death. Ibn Sina held that all human souls survived, body being unresurrectible, although he allowed that souls, after being separated from their bodies, especially those that are 'undeveloped' but morally virtuous, felt a kind of 'physical' pleasure since they were incapable of experiencing purely mental states. But in general he taught that the resurrection of the body was an imaginative myth with which the minds of the Prophets were inspired in order to influence the moral character of the unthinking masses. Ibn Rushd (Averroes), the Spanish Arab philosopher who introduced medieval Europe to Aristotle in his own interpretation, came nearer to orthodox Islam with his doctrine that although the same body could not be identically resurrected, a numerically different but qualitatively identical body, a simulacrum, would be supplied.

Having thus reached a stage of consciousness where the entire philosophical metaphysic seemed to correspond, point by point, to theological beliefs of religion but never exactly tallied with the latter, a general problem was raised before the philosophers about the nature of religion and philosophy and their mutual relationship. Either there was a double truth, one apprehended by philosophy, the other by religion, or the truth was unitary but appeared now in rational, and again in a metaphorical, imaginative form. The first alternative, that of two truths, did not seem possible rationally and so the philosophers decided to pursue the latter line of thought. Religious truth is but rational truth, but instead of being expressed in nakedly rational formulas, manifested itself in imaginative symbols - a fact which was responsible for its widespread acceptance by, and effectiveness among, the masses. Thus, religion is but philosophy for the masses, and, once accepted, is philosophy of the masses, having as its primary function their moral education and purification.

In order to make this view possible, an intricate and brilliant theory of Prophetic Revelation was constructed to do justice to the Islamic phenomenon as the philosopher saw it. Basically, nothing new was imposed on the Greek system of thought: the materials were those of late Hellenism, but these were pressed into a new direction so that a novel, original pattern emerged from them. The Greek theory and psychology of cognition were internally manipulated to yield the idea of a unique type of human intellect which intuitively apprehended the reality in a total sweep and then clothed this truth, through an inner impulsion into figurative symbols to make them accessible to the common man...


[*] This essay is 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.

[1] The terms `apophatic' ("negative") and `cataphatic' ("positive") to indicate a theology seem to have been first used in the Christian world by Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite (f.c. 500CE) (see below).

[2] The meaning or etymologies which Philo 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 it means "inaccessible". .

[3] Along with other Abrahamic religious traditions, the Christian doctrine of the incomprehensibility / unknowability of God is closely associated with various eclectic forms (`Aristotelianizing' and `Stoicizing') of Middle and Neo-Platonic philosophy. This intellectual heritage was welcomed by Socrates and Plato for example, were seen by the Alexandrian apologists and later Christian thinkers as subject to divine inspiration through the logos spermatikos, the pre-Christian operations of the Holy Spirit of Christ.

[4] These terms 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." (145).

"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).

[5] 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 Siná and in many later mystical and Sufi writers as well as in numerous Bábí and Bahá'í texts (see below).

[6] The complications of the various categories of the divine attributes cannot be entered into here. See further, for example, Gardet ER 6:33-34. For some Sunni Muslims the strict doctrine of tawḥíd ("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-lá kayf wa bi-lá tashbíḥ = `Without asking how or comparison').

[7] I follow here the translation of Chodkiewicz, 1993:97 referring to various passages in Ibn `Arabí's al-Futuḥát al-makiyya .

[8] (There was no footnote #8, I made a mistake in formatting. -J.W.)

[9] Worth noting in this respect is the following spontaneous supererogatory supplication for the month of Raman n transmitted by Abí `Abd Alláh (Imam Ja`far al-Ṣádiq, d. c. 80/669-700), in which six pavilions are spoken about relative to specific Divine attributes, "O my God! I verily, ask Thee by Thy Name which is inscribed in the pavilion of Glory (surádiq al-majd) and I beseech Thee by Thy Name which is inscribed in the pavilion of Splendour (surádiq al-bahá'). I verily, ask Thee by Thy Name which is inscribed in the pavilion of Grandeur (surádiq al-`aẓimat) and I beseech Thee by Thy Name which is inscribed in the pavilion of Radiance (surádiq al-jalál). I verily, ask Thee by Thy Name which is inscribed in the pavilion of Might (surádiq al-`izzat) and I beseech Thee by Thy Name which is inscribed in the pavilion of Secrets (surádiq al-sara'ir) which is Foremost (al-sábíq), Paramount (al-fá'iq), Beauteous (al-ḥusn), Splendid (al-nayyír). And by the Lord of the Eight [Arch-] Angels (al-malá'ikat al-thamániyat) and the Lord of the Mighty Celestial Throne (rabb al-`arsh al-`aẓím)." (Cited in Majlisí, Bihar 2 58:43 from al-Iqbál of Sayyid Raḍí al-Dín ibn Táwūs (589/1193-664/1266). It is noted in this 2nd edition of the BIḥár vol. 58:43 (fn.2) that this spontaneous supererogatory supplication cannot be traced (?).

[10] The Du`a al-sabáḥ cannot be found, for example, in al-Qummí, Mafatíḥ.. 91-94. Clarification of a phrase within it was requested of the Báb by a certain Mírzá Muhammad `Alí, the Guilder -- the Tafsír Du`a al-ṣabaḥ can be found, for example, in INBMC 40:155-162.

[11] This ḥadíth is found in a variety of forms in a number of Sunní and Shí`í sources. The word `amá' ("loosely "Cloud") has been variously translated and interpreted. For some details see Lambden, 1984.

[12] This letter of the Báb is contained in TBAMS 6007 C:1-16. It was apparently written in reply to questions posed by Siyyid Yaḥyá Dárábí, Vaḥíd (a leading disciple of the Báb; see Fáḍil-i Mazandaraní, Asrár al-athár, 4:391 (text also partially quoted here).

[13] On another level `amá' ("cloud") and hawá' ("air") indicate the created nafs ("Self") of God, as opposed to the mystery of His transcendent and uncreated reality. God's being in `amá' is expressive of the station (maqám) of the manifestation (ẓuhūr) of the "First Dhikr" (dhikr al-awwál = the primal divine manifestation and locus of prophethood).

[14] Various modes of the Divine theophany (tajallí) are mentioned in Sufi treatises; i.e. (1) tajallí al-dhát (`the theophany of the Divine Essence'); (2) tajallí al-ṣifát (`the theophany of the Divine Attributes') and (3) tajallí al-af``ál (`the theophany of the Divine Actions'). See for example, Shiháb al-Dín `Umar al-Suhrawardí, `Awárif al-ma`árif (Per. trans, Mahmūd ibn `Alí al-Káshání) translated into English by H. Wilberforce Clarke (1891; reprint ed. Octagon Press London 1980), p. 79ff.

[15] Both Sayyid Káẓim and the Báb accept this reading (see Sayyid Káẓim, 1270/1853/4: cf. Lambden and Fananapazir, 1995 and see above). The recent edition of Rajab al-Bursí's Mashariq al-anwár.. reads, "I saw the Mercy of God (raḥmat Alláh)" (p.166) while that printed in á'irá's Ilzám al-náib places a letter "wáw" before the word God (Alláh) (II:243).

[16] That passage from the Dawn Prayer of Imam `Alí on which the Báb commented is cited here. It has influenced many passages in Bábí-Bahá'í scripture. Here is an example from a meditation of Bahá'-Alláh, "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).

[17] This Tablet is listed by Shoghi Effendi in his list of `Bahá'u'lláh'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 Bahá'í World Centre, Haifa, Israel.

[18] See TAB III:485 (= SW IV/18:304 = Holley, 1928, No. 847, pp. 459-60; cf. SW III/14:8f).

[19] 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" (bar al-ghayb). None but God and the "Manifetations of His Self" (maíhir nafsihi) are aware of this realm and its recondite mysteries (AQA 3:86ff).

[20] Apart from underlining the transcendence and unknowability of the Absolute Essence of God, the Báb emphasized the presence of the "Day of God" through His manifestation. He frequently claimed Divinity Himself and sometimes bestowed it upon others, upon a "pleroma" of leading disciples. There exist writings of the Báb -- certain passages from them cited by Bahá'-Alláh in his Lawḥ-i Sarráj -- which make it clear that a number of leading Bábís shared in His eschatolgical Divinity. He stated that God conferred "Divinity" (al-ulūhiyya) and "Lordship" (al-rubūbiyya) on whosoever He pleased (Ma’idih 7:64).

[21] 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).

[22] "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).

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