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Excerpt from longer document including two short sections "Names and Letters - The Bab" and "The Letter bá'"
This paper is published in Word format at Hebrew University of Jerusalem website, where the author is the Chair in Baha'i Studies. Below is a short excerpt; download the full original at

New Religions and Religious Movements:
The Common Heritage

by Moshe Sharon

published in Studies in Modern Religions and Religious Movements and the Bábí Bahá'í Faiths, pages 3-40
Leiden: Brill, 2004
[ excerpt; download the full original at ]

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Names and Letters — The Báb

We hear the same language, and encounter similar ideas, in the works of the Báb. ‘Alí Muhammad Shírází, the Báb (1819–1850), was well aware of the mystical meaning and the magical power of letters, their numerical equivalencies, and of the names of God. (MacEoin 1994:14ff.) An important part of his work is dedicated to the investigation of the mystical meanings in the Qur’án. He was fascinated by the idea, which was by his time common knowledge, in Shí‘ite as well as non-Shí‘ite circles, about the creative power of the names of God, the ninety-nine “Beautiful Names.” He knew very well that the Imáms were identical with these names, being themselves the tools of creation as well as the cause for creation. But most of all he was fascinated with the connection between the word One (Wáhid) representing the Divine absolute unity and the word Living (hayy) which represents the supreme quality of the Divine Being, Divine Existence and Divine Presence. The numerical value of Wáhid (One) is nineteen, that is to say the number eighteen, being the numerical value of hayy (Living), to which one must be added since oneness is always present in all the letters. Practically and symbolically he pictures the mystical union between the Living and His Oneness as a Holy completion and Divine perfection: the establishment of the secret of the ultimate One. The symbol of this union also placed him, as the Manifestation of God, as the supreme point in the centre of this union, as the cause of this mysterious, yet clear completeness. The mystery was cast in the form of letters, and the letters were chosen individuals—the first disciples, the first believers, who like planets revolved around the one sun of unity, the Báb himself, the one who gives them life, the one who through his light, and life-giving energy, they exist. Thus he created a living system, in which the multiplicity was only the apparent manifestation of the union: the eighteen, which together with the Manifestation of God become the One (wáhid), the powerful number of the nineteen.

This mystical One has long been identified in the first verse of the Qur’án, this otherwise simple and clear invocation: “In the Name of Allah the Compassionate the Merciful.” Overtly the verse contains the proper name of God (Allah) with two of His Attributes the synonyms: “Compassionate,” and “Merciful;” but already Shaykh Ahmad al-Ahsá’í (1753–1826), and probably others before him paid careful attention to the fact that this innocent verse is composed of four words and that the number of the letters of “bism alláh ar-rahmán ar-rahím” is nineteen in all. The fact that the Basmalah is composed of four words is also very significant. The Muslim scholars taught that the number four is the foundation of the divine order. The first four numbers (1–4) are the source of all the exiting numbers. Four is the number of the elements, the substances, the natural condition, the humours, the seasons of the year, and the points of the compass. (Rasá‘il 1928 (1):23-28.) It is difficult avoiding the facts, which call for attention, that as much as the Jewish mystics emphasized the four letter Divine Name (the Tetragrammaton), also the eyes of the Muslim mystics were attracted to the number four as the Divine number. The latter did not regard it coincidental that the Divine name, Alláh, is composed of four letters (very similar to the Tetragrammaton) nor that Muhammad’s name, and Husayn’s name (for the Shí‘ites) is also composed of four letters. The Báb’s name Muhammad and Bahá’u’lláh’s name Husayn fall, of course, into this category. There is hardly any question that ‘Abbás Effendí (‘Abdu ’l-Bahá’)’s explanation of the meaning of the “Greatest Name” draws on the tradition about the mystical power of the number four, along the thinking of the Ismá’íliyyah. Referring to the “Greatest name” that is engraved on the ring stone on which the letter há’ appears four times on the four corners of the design, he says: “As for the four há’s these are the pillars of the Temple of Unity and together add up to ten (italics added), for one and two make three and three six, six and four ten…” (MacEoin 1994:143)

There is nothing incidental in mystical thought. The nineteen letters of the first verse of the Qur’án, and of every sürah of the Qur’án, could just not be ignored. They represented no less than the supreme unity of the divine being, and as such, the essence of the creative power of God, especially since in addition to consisting of nineteen letters the Basmalah begins with the letter bá’, incidentally, just as the Torah begins with the letter beth.

The Letter Bá’

The letter bá’ is not just a simple letter; it has qualities which are connected with its position in the order of both the Hebrew and Arabic alphabet, and with its orthographic shape, namely, the way in which it is written. In the order of the Arabic as well as Hebrew, Greek and Latin alphabets, the bá’, (or beth, betta, B) comes after the alef, that has the numerical value of One. That is to say the bá’ represents the first existence after the One, the divine entity or, undivided essence which is beyond comprehension. In other words, the bá’ is the revealed side of the unknown alef. Therefore, the bá’ is nothing less than the representation of the manifestation of God, the prophet, who embodies the creative power of the divine Word. It should be made clear that in all mystical systems the letters are not symbols but actually the building blocks used by God to create the universe. It thus follows that, the world was created in bá’, or with a bá’, which is good reason for the Qur’án (and the Torah, a fact which the Báb did not know) beginning with this letter. For this reason the greatest Name of God Bahá’, Splendour, begins with the letter bá’ which in the Bahá’í Faith became the identifying letter and the divine symbol of all worlds of existence—the divine realm, the world of physical reality and the realm of the Manifestation of God. The latter is the Middle world of the divine names, the abode of the Imáms, and the prophets, the kingdom of the divine creative Word or Order. (One should bear in mind that the alef and the number one, which is its numerical value, also share the same orthographic shape | —a vertical line). By assuming the word Bahá’ as his name either separately or compounded with Alláh, Bahá’u’lláh emphasized the great value of this most Supreme name of God that begins with the letter bá’, which the Báb, following earlier Shí‘í and Shaykhí tradition, made also the most of its orthographic shape.

When written, the bá’ is a combination of a horizontal line and a dot underneath it. Without the dot it can easily be regarded as a lying, or horizontal alef. There is no need for much imagination to see how this simple orthographical fact could assume mystical interpretation. The vertical alef which stands like a wall preventing the penetration of sight or thought either way, the One secret divine essence, which does not allow any apprehension of anything that is “before” or “after,” becomes a flat basis, an open route, a straight line which leads backwards and forwards. In other words, the vertical alef, which points to the unfathomable Up and unfathomable Down, when turned horizontal becomes the revealed bá’: not reality in a physical sense but the reality of the, otherwise, unknown divine essence.

But still the horizontal line is not enough to communicate the true value of the bá’, there are others, two or even four letters in the Arabic alphabet which are written as a horizontal line. What makes the bá’ an independent letter is the dot or the point, underneath it. Only with the point the bá’ becomes complete, representing the revealed God. This idea was clearly expressed by Shaykh Ahmad al-Ahsá’í:
The bá’ is the form of the divinity which is the representation of (the revealed) Allah, may he be exalted, and it combines the attributes of holiness like: the Exalted, the Holy, the Mighty, the Sublime and so forth, with His attributes of accompaniment like, the All-Knowing, the All-Hearing, the All-Seeing, the All-Able, the All-Commanding, and the similar, with the attributes of creation such as, the Creator, the Provider, the Bestower, and so on. (Rasá’il, p.136, quoted by Saeidi 1999:161)
It follows that Shaykh Ahmad agrees that the letter bá’ is in itself the greatest divine name, as well as the letter opening the name Bahá’ which is the greatest name of God (ism alláh al-a‘zam). In specifying the part played by each letter of the alphabet in the world of existence al-Ahsá’í identifies the letter bá’ with the Universal Soul, usually the second emanation in the Neoplatonic system, and the universal life-giving power (bá‘ith). (Cole 1994:4ff.) In other words, in the hierarchy of the existential text that forms by its letters the divine attributes, which represent the revealed God, the letter bá’ follows the Universal intellect, the very first emanation from the mystery of the hidden eternity of the divine essence. (cf. ibid.)

Since the point under the horizontal line is the deciding factor, which gives the letter its true identity, this point is regarded as the point of creation. Without it the letter, which represents the sublime divine name and thus the sum total of the powers of the revealed God, is incomplete. In other words, everything which is symbolized by the bá’ concentrates in the Point of this letter, and since the prophets and the Imáms, especially the latter, are identical with the creative powers of God, that is to say, identical with his Names, then it follows that they are also the Supreme Name of God. For all the names of God, although they are many, are in fact only one, similar to a reflection of the same image in many mirrors, (a simile which the Báb as well as ‘Abbás Effendi (‘Abdu’l-Bahá’) liked to use. ‘Abdu’l Bahá’ 1964:113-115).

The point signifying the undefined essence of creation received much attention in Shí‘í as well as Súfí literature. To ‘Alí is attributed the saying that all knowledge is “a point (nuqtah), which those who are ignorant multiplied many times.” (kaththarahá al-jáhilün). This saying is quoted by Sa‘d ad-Dín Hamawayh (d. 650/1252 at the opening of Risálat al-Misbáh. He goes on to develop the idea of the connection of the point and the Divine Being.
Thou shouldest know that the point consists of three colours, one is black, one is white and one is red. The black indicates the (divine) Essence, the white indicates the Attributes and the red indicates the Creation. (ibid.)
The identification of the Imáms with the divine attributes, is best represented in the following saying attributed to no less than ‘Alí b. Abü Tálib: “The secret of the Basmalah is in the (letter) bá’ and the secret of the bá’ is in the point and I am the point of the bá’,” (quoted by Saeidi 1999: 167). Here the Shí‘ite tradition, which was followed by Shaykh Ahmad and the Báb, meets the tradition that ascribes the same words: “I am the point of the Beth,” to the Hasidic Rabbi R. Israel of Ruzhin of the early 19th century. The reader can be sure that R. Israel had no knowledge of this Shí‘í tradition. (I am sure that had ‘Alí been alive when this tradition was ascribed to him he too would not have recognized it). However, mystical minds must sometimes be thinking alike. The question of the letter bá’ and the point under it can be a subject for very extensive research, which is not my intention. However, the following quotation from Jamí‘ al-Asrár wa-Manábi‘ al-Anwár by Shaykh Sayyid Haydar Ámulí may serve as a summary and elucidation to the above arguments:
The bá’ is the representation of the apparent reality… just as the alef is the representation of the hidden eternal reality… The point under the bá’, is the representation of that which is possible (al-mumkin)… The saying of Ibn al-‘Arabí: “in the bá’ the (physical) reality appeared in the point, and the difference between the created from the creator was established (Ámulí, 700-701).

[ end of excerpt; download the full original at ]
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