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Mazhar-i Ilahi (Manifestation of God)

by Moojan Momen

published in Encyclopaedia Iranica
New York: Columbia University, 2016
MAẒHAR-E ELĀHI (Manifestation of God), a key Bahai term designating the prophets/founders of the world’s religions as the manifestations of the names and attributes of God.  The Bahai scriptures assert that the teachings of each of these figures have taken humanity a stage forward in its social evolution.

The term maẓhar and its cognate ẓohur (appearance) have a history in Islamic thought. They were used by the Eḵwān-al-Ṣafā for the process by which God emanated divine attributes upon the Universal Intellect and through that upon the world; by Ismaʿili philosophers, such as Naṣir-al-Din Ṭusi (d. 672/1274), who wrote of the connection of the Creator to the world through a locus of manifestation (maẓhar; Ṭusi, p. 374); by Šehāb-al-Din Sohrawardi (d. 587/1191), the founder of the philosophy school of illuminationism (ḥekmat-e ešrāq), who tends, however, to use the associated word tajalli (manifestation) to express the same concept and applies it to all human beings and to the Paraclete/Comforter (e.g., see pp. 87-88); and by the Shiʿite philosopher Mollā Ṣadrā (d. 1050/1640), who wrote of God manifesting himself through His names and attributes (e.g., see tr., pp. 238-39).  But there was also a stream of thought in Islam, exemplified by the school of the distinguished Sufi Ebn al-ʿArabi (d. 638/1240), that considered the manifestation of God to mean the manifestation of the essence rather than the attributes of God (Ebn al-ʿArabi, pp. 32-34; tr., pp. 64-65; on Islamic uses of the term maẓhar, see Cole, pp. 15-17).

In none of these Islamic writings does the concept of maẓhar-e elāhi have the importance and centrality that it does in the Bahai scriptures.  According to Bahai metaphysics, between the world of God (ʿālam-e ḥaqq) and the world of creation and humanity (ʿālam-e ḵalq), there is an intermediate world, the world of the [Divine] command (ʿālam-e amr).  Bahāʾ-Allāh states that the world of God is entirely unknowable for human beings, but God has designated a small number of individuals, the prophet/founders of the world’s religions, to be the intermediaries between the world of God and humanity (Bahāʾ-Allāh, 1934, pp. 74-75; tr., pp. 99-100).  These intermediaries have a twofold nature, namely, their physical body and human nature, which belong to the ʿālam-e ḵalq, and their spiritual reality, which belongs to ʿālam-e amr.  They represent God on earth and reflect all that humans can know of God, by perfectly manifesting all of the names and attributes of God (Bahāʾ-Allāh, 1934, pp. 77-78; tr., pp. 103-4; idem, 1984, no. 30, p. 55; tr., p.74; ʿAbd-al-Bahāʾ, pp. 110-12, 114-16; tr., pp. 146-48, 151-53; Dāwudi, pp. 129-37), hence each is designated a Manifestation of God (maẓhar-e elāhi) and this is the term that Bahāʾ-Allāh uses in relation to himself rather than such terms as messenger (rasul) or prophet (nabi).  Thus in the Bahai faith, this term indicates a manifestation of the Divine attributes and not an incarnation of God.

Since the Manifestation of God is the manifestation of the attributes of God and the representative of God on earth is the only access to God available to human beings, Bahāʾ-Allāh states that the knowledge of God can only be attained through these Manifestations, and, indeed, recognizing these Manifestations and obeying them is recognizing and obeying God (Bahāʾ-Allāh, p. 74; tr., p. 99; idem, no. 21, p. 40; tr., p. 50; ʿAbd-al-Bahāʾ, p. 168; tr., p. 222).  Because of this, it is possible, Bahāʾ-Allāh states, to identify the Manifestation of God with God (as Christians do with Christ).  On the other hand, bearing in mind the lower, human nature of the Manifestation, it is possible to assert (as Muslims do) that Moḥammad was just a man who was a messenger of God (Bahāʾ-Allāh, 1934, pp. 138-39; tr., pp. 178-79).


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