Names and Attributes of God

By Stephen Lambden

First presented at the Irfan Colloquia Session #89
Center for Bahá'í Studies: Acuto, Italy
June 28 – July 1, 2009
(see list of papers from #89)

    God has numerous personal and associated names and attributes within Abrahamic (Jewish, Christian, Islamic) religious scripture and related exegetical texts. The third word in the Hebrew Bible is the personal Name of God Elohim (Genesis 1:1, "In the beginning God created...), a designation of the Deity which subsequently occurs around 2,569 times in the Hebrew Bible. The tetragrammaton (YHWH) first occurs in the book of Genesis, linked with Elohim, in Genesis 2:4 ("And the Lord God...") and subsequently about 6822 times. Other personal Names of God are also found in the Hebrew Bible including Eloah (sing. cf. pl. Elohim) "God" which occurs most frequently in the book of Job (41 times e.g. Job 3:4). This latter Hebrew personal Name of God loosely corresponds with the most important Arabic, Islamic, personal Name of God, Allah, which is found very frequently in the Qur'an, e.g. "Allah (God) is the Light of the heavens and of the earth" (Q. 24:35). According to some Islamic traditions it is Allah which is the al—ism al—a`zam, the Supreme or Greatest Name of God, though there are other Islamic traditions which offer different identifications. This paper will explore aspects of these different theories of the Mightiest or Greatest Name of God.

    An important Islamic tradition allegedly relayed from Muhammad by one of the companions, Abu Hurayra (d. c. 58/678) identifies the ninety—nine al—asma' al—husna ("Most Beautiful Names") of God mentioned in the Qur'an (Q. 7:179). These 99 Names begin with the aforementioned name Allah and end with al-Sabur ("The Patient", No.99). There are variant lists of these al—asma al—husna and supplementary lists of Names of God derived from the Qur'an and elsewhere. One Shi`i Islamic list of 99 Names traced them back to Imam `Ali (d. 40/661) beginning with Allah (God, No. 1) and ends with al-Sha`fi (`The Healer", No. 99).

    Many sometimes weighty expositions of these ninety—nine al—asma' al—husna have been written by Muslims in Arabic, Persian, Turkish and other languages. The Ottoman historian and bibliographer Khatib Chelebi (or Hajji Khalifa) (d. 1067/1657) in his massive Kashf al—zunun lists thirty—one of them (see ed. 2008, Vol. 2: 314-7; nos. 7907-7938). Many of the Names of God central to Bábí—Bahá'í theology such as al—Quddus ("The Most Holy", No. 5), al—Qayyum ("The Self—Subsisting", No. 64), al—Wahid ("The Unique", No. 67), and al—Badi` (the Regenerative Cause", No. 95), receive detailed, often illuminating exposition in many of these learned works composed over a span of a thousand years or more of Islamic history. The Arabic noun and Persian loanword Bahá', itself meaning (among other things), "Beauty", is neither found in the Qur'an nor counted among the ninety—nine `Most Beautiful Names' of God in mainstream Islamic traditions. This paper will provide some historical background and context for the Bahá'í theology identifying the eschatological Name of God as the word Bahá' (= Splendor, Glory, Beauty, etc).

    Books listing and commenting upon the Names of God and theories about what might constitute God's Mightiest, Greatest or Supreme Name are important aspects of the Islamic literary heritage. Some among the pious, however, considered theorizing and acting relative to the secreted mystery of God's supreme Name to be illicit. Though there are quite a few books and treatises on the al—ism al—a`zam (the Mightiest Name of God) in Islamic languages, the various theories about what might constitute God's Mightiest eschatological Name have been very little studied. There are very few academic papers on this subject.

    In this paper attention will be focused upon a section of the Misbáḥ ("Luminary") of the Shi`i writer Taqi al—Din Kaf`ami (d. 900/1494—5) which spells out around sixty Islamic and other theories as to the nature and identity of the al—ism al—a`zam or the Supreme Name of God. It will be demonstrated that many of the traditions registered by al—Kaf`ami have a bearing upon Bábí—Bahá'í theologies of the eschatological Name of God. Both the Báb and Bahá'u'lláh were influenced by such theories and, in some cases, commented upon certain of them in some detail.

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