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Recently a friend asked me: “Why do Baha’is consider ‘Questions’ an attribute of God?” and “Is the word ‘Questions’ an accurate translation of the Arabic term ‘Masa’il’?”
I’ll try to answer those questions about Questions here.
Just as Christianity emerged from Judaism, the Baha’i Faith emerged from Islam. That said, Baha’is are not Muslims, just as Christians are not Jews. While the Christian Bible contains the Old Testament, also known as the Hebrew scriptures, Baha’is do not include the Quran as one of their scriptures, even though the Quran is respected. In this complex matrix of religious origins, there is much carryover from the earlier religion, even though the Baha’i Faith is an independent world religion with its own prophet-founders, the Bab and Baha’u’llah.
Islam is divided into two major divisions, Sunni Islam and Shia Islam – although there are many more sects in Islam than just those two. The Baha’i Faith emerged from Shia Islam, the tradition most prevalent in Persia, where the Bab and Baha’u’llah were born.
For the purpose of this article, we’ll focus on one Islamic tradition that has a very interesting carryover into the Baha’i Faith, in which this tradition is completely transformed. Muslims have a special dawn prayer for the Ramadan fast, the beginning of which Baha’u’llah quotes in his book Epistle to the Son of the Wolf: “O my God! I beseech Thee by Thy most glorious light, and all Thy lights are verily glorious”. That prayer is known as the “Du‘a saḥar” – the “Dawn Prayer” of Muhammad al-Baqir for Ramadan, the Islamic Fast. (Stephen Lambden’s full translation)
This beautiful and uplifting Islamic prayer, really a universal prayer in nature, beseeches God’s blessings by invoking certain spiritual attributes – the qualities, powers, and energies manifested by God. The Bab, who was Baha’u’llah’s forerunner, created a new solar calendar of 19 months of 19 days, known as the Badi (“Wondrous,” “Unique,” “New”) Calendar, which this series is all about.
In this novel and fascinating Badi Calendar, the Bab incorporated various “Names” of God directly from the “Du‘a saḥar”, also known as the “Du‘a Baha” – the “Prayer of Splendor” or “Prayer of Glory.” A more literal translation of the opening of this splendid prayer goes like this:
O my God! I beseech Thee by Thy Baha’ (Splendor) at its most Splendid (abha’) for all Thy Splendor (baha’) is truly resplendent (bahiyy). I, verily, O my God! beseech Thee by the fullness of Thy Splendor (baha’). – Translated by Stephen Lambden.
So let’s consider the second question first: “Is ‘Questions’ an accurate translation of the Arabic term, ‘Masá’il’?” The term has a broad range of meanings, such as issues, matters, concerns, etc. But here we are concerned with the Bab’s — and therefore the Baha’i — meaning of the term as the name of one of the Baha’i months.
Here’s a translation of the relevant passage in the “Dawn Prayer” cited above:
O my God! I beseech Thee by Thy Masa’il (Questions) which are most Agreeable (ahabb) of Thee for all of Thy Concerns (masa’il) are truly beloved (habib). I, verily, O my God! beseech Thee by the whole of Thine affairs (masa’il). – Translated by Stephen Lambden.
The answer to the second question, then, is obviously yes – the Arabic word Masa’il can be accurately translated as ‘Questions.’
Now let’s consider the first inquiry: “How can ‘Questions’ be considered an attribute of God?” Questions, after all, is perhaps the most interesting and perplexing of these names of the Baha’i months, to which we dedicated three articles previously. (See Part 2: “The Baha’i Month, and Godly Attribute, of Questions”; Part 27: “Is God Present? A Month of Questions, A Year of Answers”; and Part 39: “God Asks Questions: We Should, Too.”)
The following statement appears in several early volumes of The Bahá’í World, an official Baha’i publication first overseen by Shoghi Effendi: “The Bab named the months after the attributes of God.” This clear and unambiguous assertion was quoted from Dr. J. E. Esslemont’s classic introduction to the Baha’i Faith, Baha’u’llah and the New Era, with the full knowledge and tacit approval of Shoghi Effendi, the Guardian of the Baha’i Faith.
Furthermore, in Note 147, in the authorized translation of Baha’u’llah’s Most Holy Book — prepared under the auspices of the Universal House of Justice — this statement is reaffirmed: “The Bab named the months after certain attributes of God.”
So “Questions” is definitely one of the “attributes of God,” although how and why “Questions” is an attribute of God requires further exploration and explanation. Let’s explore further what the Bab meant by “Questions” by taking a close look at the following passage:
So reveal ye then of a certainty, O my God!, upon whomsoever thou shall make manifest on the Day of Resurrection, all of Thy Victory, Thy Conquest, Thy Theophanic Manifestation, Thy Victorious Conquest, Thy Vanquishing, Thine Omnipotence, and Thy Great Strength though such qualities can in no wise depict Thine Own Logos-Self by virtue of Thine Own Most-Beautiful Names which are Inaccessible, for Thy Abstracted Similitudes are Supremely Elevated, greatly Upraised through all of Thy Glory in its Supreme Abha Glory, through all of Thy Splendour at its Most Splendid, through all of Thy Beauty at its most Beautiful, through all of Thy Grandeur at its Grandest, through all Light expressive of His Lights, through all Mercy spread abroad in its vastness, through all Words in their completeness, through all Names in their Magnitude, through all Perfections expressing their Completeness, through all Might expressive of Power, through all of the Divine Will in its actualization despite its utter impenetrability before Thee, through all of Thy Nobility with its power to ennoble, through all of Thy Knowledge-Gnosis at its most penetrative, through all of Thy Power as it is long-stretched, through all of Thy Speech at its most pleasing, through all of the Questions (Masá’il) which are Most Beloved of Thee and of Thine Elevated Similitudes which are Upraised thereby, through whom indeed were matters glorified! – The Bab, Kitab-i panj sha’n. Provisional translation by Stephen Lambden. (emphasis added)
Here, in bold letters, you can see a cluster, or constellation, of spiritual qualities that emanate and radiate from the Creator — and which we humans can, to the best our abilities, and in varying degrees, start to emulate. Here, the attribute of “Questions” appears to be closely related to the quality of “Knowledge,” perhaps because knowledge comes from questions, as the result of search after truth, independent investigation, and inquiry in the pursuit of answers.
The effect of exemplifying the attributes and actions inspired and actuated by the pursuit of “Questions” has the ideal result of enhancing and ennobling our character, each and all.