Principles and history: The Greatest Name and Bahá’í symbols
Some of the most familiar visual symbols of the Faith are connected directly or indirectly with the Greatest Name.
Various visual symbols have been created over the years to represent the Bahá’í Faith or remind us of central teachings. The Greatest Name—used in several forms, all based on the Arabic root word “Bahá,” meaning glory, splendor or light—is connected to all of the most familiar ones.
The Bahá’í concept of the Greatest Name of God flows from an Islamic tradition that considered that most sacred Name to be hidden. In an article in the October 1968 issue of Bahá’í News, “Explanation of the Emblem of the Greatest Name,” the Hand of the Cause of God Abul-Qásim Faizi noted that the Greatest Name is also presaged in Hindu, Buddhist and Judeo-Christian traditions.
With the advent of Bahá’u’lláh, whose title means “Glory of God,” that hidden Name has been revealed. The very word “Bahá’í” is a derivative of that Name.
Invocations of the Greatest Name
Another form is “Abhá,” meaning “Most Glorious.” This form is incorporated in two derivatives of the Greatest Name familiar to Bahá’ís worldwide.
“Yá Bahá’u’l-Abhá” means “O Glory of the All-Glorious,” and Shoghi Effendi called it a “battle cry” for Bahá’í teachers and pioneers worldwide. Mishkín-Qalam, an early Bahá’í calligrapher, created a beautiful rendering of this invocation that is displayed in Bahá’í homes everywhere. It adorns the domed ceiling and doorway arches of the Bahá’í House of Worship in Wilmette, Illinois. (See picture above. Graphic designs pictured on this page are trademarked by the National Spiritual Assembly of the Bahá’ís of the United States.)
Bahá’ís have used “Alláh-u-Abhá” or “God the Most Glorious” as a greeting since Bahá’u’lláh’s days in Adrianople in the 1860s. The Most Holy Book prescribes reciting that form of the Greatest Name 95 times each day, and it is part of the Long Obligatory Prayer.
For those wishing to wear a ring on the right hand adorned with the Greatest Name, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá designed a calligraphic symbol that incorporates Arabic letters in “Bahá” into a visual representation of the relationship among the worlds of God, of Revelation and of humanity. (See picture above.)
The top and bottom horizontal lines—each a stylized doubling of the Arabic letter “h”—represent respectively the world of God and the world of creation. In between, a stylized letter “b” represents the world of the Manifestations of God. That letter is repeated vertically to represent the role and station of the Manifestations in “joining the world of the Creator to that of His creation,” Mr. Faizi wrote.
The five-pointed stars at the right and left, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá wrote, “represent the divine origin and also the human personality of the Báb and Bahá’u’lláh. …”
Five- and nine-pointed stars
In fact, Shoghi Effendi identified the five-pointed star as the sacred symbol of the Faith. A striking form of that symbol is the Star of Haykal (Temple), vertically elongated as an abstract representation of the human body.
Bahá’u’lláh and the Báb both wrote Tablets in the visual form of this mystically rich symbol. One special tablet revealed by the Báb presents 360 derivatives of the name “Bahá” in that form, symbolizing the essence of the Greatest Name in a human frame and subtly identifying Bahá’u’lláh as the Messenger Who would fulfill the Báb’s prophecies.
The nine-pointed star gained popularity among Bahá’ís after it was used as an element in the design of the House of Worship. Shoghi Effendi clarified that while not a sacred symbol, it is an acceptable emblem of the Faith. Its affinity with the Greatest Name is indirect; numerical values traditionally assigned to the Arabic letters in the word “Bahá” add up to nine. As the highest single-digit number, nine has other symbolic significances such as perfection or completeness.
Use of Bahá’í symbols
Dignity and reverence are the main principles guiding use of these symbols. A summary of some guidelines from the Guardian and the Universal House of Justice:
- The “Yá Bahá’u’l-Abhá” calligraphy or the ringstone symbol may be used as the central feature of ornamental objects such as plaques or jewelry, so long as care is taken to reproduce the original designs exactly.
- Bahá’ís wishing to depict sacred symbols on objects they plan to sell or distribute must have those objects reviewed in advance by a Local Spiritual Assembly; for details and basic review guidelines, Assemblies and individuals may contact the Office of Review at the Bahá’í National Center (firstname.lastname@example.org). Once that approval is gained, they must have trademark permission; for that purpose one may contact the Office of Legal Affairs (email@example.com).
- Book covers, stationery, stickers, gravestones or objects of common utility such as cups or food plates should not have any form of Greatest Name calligraphy in Arabic. Use of these sacred symbols as an element in paintings is also discouraged.
- A nine-pointed star or the transliterated word “Bahá’í” may be utilized in many of the above ways, provided the specific use is considered dignified, which may not be the case for many objects of common utility. The National Spiritual Assembly has trademarked the specific form of the nine-pointed star at the top of this article and reserves it to identify official publications and websites.
A little history: “[While in Paris on May 22, 1913,] ‘Abdu’l-Bahá visited an eminent member of the Persian aristocracy. … The nobleman was overwhelmed and bowed to kiss His hands. He described to ‘Abdu’l-Bahá an occasion in London in which he had found himself seated near a lady who wore a simple, inexpensive ring set with cornelian. His curiosity had led him to ask why, to be told: ‘You are a Persian and should know that the Name of Bahá’u’lláh is inscribed on this ringstone.’ Feeling both shame at his ignorance, and elation at this evidence of Persia’s influence in high circles in London, he realized that his hostility to the Faith of Bahá’u’lláh had vanished then and there.” —from ‘Abdu’l-Bahá: The Centre of the Covenant of Bahá’u’lláh by H.M. Balyuzi
A little reading (available from Bahá’í Distribution Service):
- The Kitáb-i-Aqdas: The Most Holy Book, particularly notes 33 and 137.
- Lights of Guidance, particularly the section on the Greatest Name of God.