Some Aspects of the Tafsir al-Bismillah from Abdu'l-Baha

By Sasha Dehghani

First presented at the Irfan Colloquia Session #62
Centre for Bahá'í Studies: Acuto, Italy
July 8–12, 2005
(see list of papers from #62)

    During His lifetime `Abdu'l-Bahá penned several illuminating and demanding commentaries on the meaning of specific Qur'ánic verses as well as Islamic traditions. His amazing exposition on the holy Islamic tradition "Kuntu Kanzan Makhfían", His psychological interpretation of the first verses of the Súra ar-Rúm "Ghulibat ar-Rúm ..." or His tablet written on the meaning of the opening verse of the first Qur'ánic Súra, the so called "Bismilláh", these all may be regarded as a proof for His extraordinary capacity to shed light on highly sophisticated Islamic philosophical, theological and in particular mystical subjects.

    In this presentation efforts will be made to outline the essential topics mentioned by `Abdu'l-Bahá in His commentary on the meaning of the 'Bismilláh' (published in Min Makátíb `Adbu'l-Bahá, Vol. 1, p. 32-48). `Abdu'l-Bahá wrote this Arabic commentary as part of a letter. The introductory part of this letter discloses a male person as the recipient, who inter alia seems to have asked `Abdu'l-Bahá on the meaning of the opening Súra of the Qur'án. This part includes a prayer for protection, in which `Abdu'l-Bahá alludes to the machinations of covenant-breakers. This might indicate, that the letter was written after the time of the ascension of Bahá'u'lláh.

    In the following commentary `Abdu'l-Bahá expounds hidden meanings of single letters of the 'Bismilláh', foremost and in detail the letter 'Bá' as an allusion to the 'Most Great Name'. Furthermore, He elucidates diverse aspects of the nouns and divine names following the first letter of this verse, such as 'ismi'lláh', 'rahmán' and 'rahím'. Whereas the first letter is interpreted in terms of an esoteric and mystical understanding, the remaining sentence is explained from a philosophical and theological perspective focussing on the subject of divine monotheism ('tawhíd'). In order to clarify and underline His position He recites and gives verbatim accounts of several Islamic thinkers, who have written interpretations on the same subject. `Abdu'l-Bahá mentions traditions attributed to the first and sixth shí`ih Imáms, and refers to quotes of Siyyid Kázim-i-Rashtí and the medieval al-Andalus Súfí Ibn al-`Arabí.

    The latter is also mentioned in another section of this commentary, wherein `Abdu'l-Bahá explains the importance of the holy land Israel, particularly of `Akká, as the place of appearance of God's 'Most Great Manifestation'. Thus the unfoldment of the divine salvation history ('Heilsgeschichte') is strongly connected to the 'axis mundi'. Almost all the prophets of the Adamic cycle were honoured with an encounter of this land, a holy land divinely preordained for the fulfilment of messianic expectations ('Endzeiterwartung') and predestined for the eschatological event of the greater resurrection.

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