The Bábí-Bahá'í Transformation and Interpretation of the Islamic Basmala

By Stephen Lambden

First presented at the Irfan Colloquia Session #102
Bosch Baha'i School: Santa Cruz, California, USA
May 18–22, 2011
(see list of papers from #102)

    "The Basmala is closer to the Greatest Name (al-ism al-a`zam) than the black of the eye is to its white."
    (A well-known Islamic tradition)
    The Arabic Islamic term Basmala indicates the frequently repeated Qur'anic phrase or verse, "bism Allah al-Rahman al-Rahim," which is usually translated, "In the name of God, the Merciful, the Compassionate." This theologically important phrase has a very long history within the Islamic religion with its over, 1,000 years of Qur'an commentary, commentary upon a book communicated through the Prophet Muhammad over a 22-year or so period (c. 610-632 CE). The Basmala is the first verse of the first Sura (chapter) of the over 6,000 verse Qur'an. It prefixes most of its 114 chapters and is a central topic of discussion within numerous Sunni and Shi`i hadith or traditions (such as that cited above) about the Basmala and the Greatest or Mightiest Name of God (al-ism al-a`zam). The Basmala prefixes most of the surahs of the Qur'an and is recited in many Islamic ritual, devotional, and other circumstances. It has been interpreted in thousands of fascinating ways. Some commentators have explained each of its 5 or six words while others have allotted various deep, esoteric meanings to each of the 19 letters which make up its successive words. Marvellous calligraphic representations of the Basmala are found throughout Islamic history (see above, below the title).

    The first letter of the Basmala is the Arabic letter "B" which Jesus himself whilst a schoolboy, (according to a hadith of the Prophet Muhammad), stated that it indicated Baha'-Allah, the Splendor or Glory of God. In Islamic sources this hadith has an interesting history and literary background a few aspects of which will be communicated in this presentation.

    Within the writings of the Bab, the Islamic Basmala is frequently found and many times exponded. It prefixes many of his early writings and occurs thousands of times subsequently in newly created versions. In fact the Bab came to alter the Islamic Basmala to the theologically apophatic ("negative") phrase Bism Allah al-amna' al-aqdas, or, "In the name of God, the Most Abstruse, the Most Holy." The early Shaykhi leaders, Shaykh Ahmad al-Ahsai (d. 1826 CE) and Sayyid Kazim Rashti (d.1843 CE), wrote a number of commentaries upon the Islamic Basmala as did the central figures of the Babi and Baha'i religions, the Bab (1819-1850), Baha'u'llah (1817-1892) and his eldest son Abdu'l-Baha (1844-1921). The purpose of this paper will be to explain some aspects of the history and theology of the Basmala concept, its Babi transformation, and some of the interpretations given to it in the Baha'i sacred writings.

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