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God and the Prophets
The Bahá'í belief in one God means that the universe and all creatures and forces within it have been created by a single supernatural Being. This Being, Whom we call God, has absolute control over His creation (omnipotence) as well as perfect and complete knowledge of it (omniscience). Although we may have different concepts of God's nature, and although we may pray to Him in different languages and call Him by different names--Allah or Yahweh, God or Brahma--nevertheless, we are speaking about the same unique Being.
Bahá'u'lláh taught that God is too great and too subtle a Being for the finite human mind to ever understand Him adequately or construct an accurate image of Him.
Thus, for human beings, knowledge of God means knowledge of the attributes and qualities of God, not direct knowledge of His essence. But how are we to attain knowledge of the attributes of God? Bahá'u'lláh wrote that everything in creation is God's handiwork and therefore reflects something of His attributes. For example, even in the intimate structure of a rock or a crystal can be seen the order of God's creation. However, the more refined the object, the more completely it is capable of reflecting God's attributes. Since the Messenger of God or Manifestation of God is the highest form of creation known to us, the Manifestation affords us the most complete knowledge of God available.
Whatever is in the heavens and whatever is on the earth is a direct evidence of the revelation within it of the attributes and names of God, inasmuch as within every atom are enshrined the signs that bear eloquent testimony to the revelation of that Most Great Light.... To a supreme degree is this true of man.... For in him are potentially revealed all the attributes and names of God to a degree that no other created being hath excelled or surpasssed.... And of all men, the most accomplished, the most distinguished, and the most excellent are the Manifestations of the Sun of Truth. Nay, all else besides these Manifestations, live by the operation of their Will, and move and have their being through the outpourings of their grace.1
Although a rock or a tree reveals something of the subtlety of its Creator, only a conscious being such as a human can animate God's attributes in his life and actions. Since the Manifestations are already in a perfect state, it is through their lives that the deeper meaning of God's attributes can be most perfectly understood. God is not limited by a physical body, so we cannot see Him directly or observe His personality; hence our knowledge of the Manifestation is, in fact, the closest we can come to knowledge of God.
The door of the knowledge of the Ancient Being [God] hath ever been, and will continue to be, closed in the face of men. No man's understanding shall ever gain access unto His holy court. As a token of His mercy, however, and as a proof of His loving-kindness, He hath manifested unto men the Day Stars of His divine guidance, the Symbols of His divine unity, and hath ordained the knowledge of these sanctified Beings to be identical with the knowledge of His own Self.2
The Bahá'í teachings hold that the motive force in all human development is the Manifestations or Prophets of God. There can be little disagreement that human history is strongly influenced by the Founders of the world's great religions. The powerful impact on civilization of Jesus Christ, Buddha, Moses, and Muhammad is seen not only in the cultural forms and value systems which arise from Their works and teachings, but also in the effects that the example of Their lives have on humankind. Even those who have not been believers or followers have nevertheless acknowledged the profound influence of these figures on individuals and on humanity's collective life.
The realization of the extraordinary impact on human history of the Founders of the major religions naturally leads to the philosphical question of their exact nature. This is one of the most controversial of all questions in the philosophy of religion, and many different answers have been given. On the one hand, the Founders of religion have been viewed as human philosophers or great thinkers who have perhaps gone further or studied more profoundly than other philosophers of their age. At the other extreme, They have been attributed as God or the incarnation of God. There have also been a multitude of theories that fall somewhere between these two extremes.3
It is thus not surprising that the Bahá'í writings deal extensively with this subject, which lies so close to the heart of religion. One of Bahá'u'lláh's major works, the Kitáb-i-Íqán (Book of Certitude), sets out in some detail the Bahá'í conception of the nature of the Manifestations of God.
According to Bahá'u'lláh, all of the Manifestations of God have the same physical nature and the same spiritual stature. There is absolute equality among Them. No one of Them is superior to another. Speaking of the Manifestations, He wrote:
These sanctified Mirrors, these Day Springs of ancient glory, are, one and all, the Exponents on earth of Him Who is the central Orb of the universe, its Essence and ultimate Purpose. From Him proceed their knowledge and power; from Him is derived their sovereignty.... By the revelation of these Gems of Divine virtue all the names and attributes of God, such as knowledge and power, sovereignty and dominion, mercy and wisdom, glory, bounty, and grace, are made manifest.
These attributes of God are not, and have never been, vouchsafed specially unto certain Prophets, and withheld from others.... That a certain attribute of God hath not been outwardly manifested by these Essences of Detachment doth in no wise imply that they who are the Day Springs of God's attributes and the Treasuries of His holy names did not actually possess it.4
Bahá'u'lláh explained that the differences which exist between the teachings of the various Manifestations of God are not due to any differences in stature or level of importance, but only to the varying needs and capacities of the civilizations to which They appeared:
[These] mighty systems have proceeded from one Source, and are the rays of one Light. That they differ one from another is to be attributed to the varying requirements of the ages in which they were promulgated.5
In the strongest terms, he warns people not to take the variations in the teachings and personalities of the Manifestations to imply a difference in their statures:
Beware, O believers in the Unity of God, lest ye be tempted to make any distinction between any of the Manifestations of His Cause, or to discriminate against the signs that have accompanied and proclaimed their Revelation. This indeed is the true meaning of Divine unity... Be ye assured, moreover, that the works and acts of each and every one of these Manifestations of God... are all ordained by God, and are a reflection of His will and Purpose. Whoso maketh the slightest possible difference between their persons, their words, their messages, their acts and manners, hath indeed disbelieved in God, hath repudiated His signs and betrayed the Cause of His Messengers.6
However, the Bahá'í doctrine of the oneness of the Manifestations does not mean that the same individual soul is born again in different physical bodies. Moses, Jesus Christ, Muhammad, and Bahá'u'lláh were all different personalities, separate individual realities. Their oneness lies in the fact that Each manifested and revealed the qualities and attributes of God to the same degree: the spirit of God which dwelled within any one of Them was identical to that which dwelled in the others.
Bahá'u'lláh offered an analogy to explain the relationship between the different Manifestations and the relationship between each Manifestation and God. In His analogy, God is likened to the sun because He is the unique source of life in the universe, in the same way that the physical sun is the unique source of all physical life on earth. The spirit and attributes of God are the rays of the sun and each individual Manifestation is a perfect mirror. If there are several mirrors all turned towards the sun, that unique sun is reflected in each mirror. Yet the individual mirrors are different, each having been made in its own form and distinct from the others.
Of course, only those who live during the time of a Manifestation have the opportunity to observe Him directly. It is for this reason, Bahá'u'lláh explained, that the essential connection between the individual and God is maintained through the writings and words of each Manifestation. For Bahá'ís, the word of the Manifestation is the Word of God, and it is to this Word that the individual can turn in his or her daily life to grow closer to God and acquire a deeper knowledge of God. The written Word of God is the instrument that creates a consciousness of God's presence in one's daily life:
Say: The first and foremost testimony establishing His truth is His own Self. Next to this testimony is His Revelation. For whoso faileth to recognize either the one or the other He hath established the words He hath revealed as proof of His reality and truth.... He hath endowed every soul with the capacity to recognize the signs of God.7
It is for this reason that the discipline of daily prayer, meditation, and study of the holy writings constitutes an important part of the individual spiritual practice of Bahá'ís. They feel that this discipline is one of the most important ways of growing closer to their Creator.
To summarize: the Bahá'í view of God is that His essence is eternally transcendent, but that His attributes and qualities are completely immanent in the Manifestations.8 Since our knowledge of anything is limited to our knowledge of the perceptible attributes of that thing, knowledge of the Manifestations is (for ordinary humans) equivalent to knowledge of God.9 In practical terms, this knowledge is gained through study, prayer, meditation, and practical application of the revealed Word of God (i.e., the sacred scriptures of the Manifestations).
- Bahá'u'lláh, Gleanings from the Writings of Bahá'u'lláh, 2nd rev. ed. (Wilmette: Bahá'í Publishing Trust, 1976), pp. 177-9.
- Ibid., pp. 49-50.
- An objective discussion of this fundamental question of the nature of what Bahá'ís refer to as the Manifestation of God is made more difficult by traditional loyalties. Orthodox followers of each Manifestation have tended to claim some kind of uniqueness or superiority for the Founder of their faith. For example, many Christians view Jesus Christ as God incarnate, consider Moses to be inferior to Him in some way, and regard Muhammad as an imposter. A majority of orthodox Jews see Moses as the human vehicle through which the Law of God was transmitted to humanity and consider Jesus Christ to be a false prophet. Muslims consider both Moses and Jesus Christ to be valid prophets, but the majority reject the Buddha and the Founders of other major faiths. For them, Muhammad was the last prophet whom God will send to man, and revelation of the Divine Will ended with the Qur'án.
- Gleanings from the Writings of Bahá'u'lláh, pp. 47-8.
- Ibid., pp. 287-8.
- Ibid., pp. 59-60.
- Ibid., pp. 105-6.
- In this connection, Bahá'ís regard Bahá'u'lláh as the "complete incarnation of the names and attributes of God." See Shoghi Effendi, The World Order of Bahá'u'lláh, Selected Letters, 2nd rev. ed. (Wilmette: Bahá'í Publishing Trust, 1974), p. 112.
- 'Abdu'l-Bahá, Some Answered Questions, 3rd ed. (Wilmette: Bahá'í Publishing Trust, 1981), p. 222.
* Adapted from William S. Hatcher and J. Douglas Martin, The Bahá'í Faith: The Emerging Global Religion (San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1985), pp. 74-5, 115-26.