Speaking from a general point of view, Islam can be divided into two separate branches each determined by its own set of beliefs, historical context and geographical distribution. These two branches are known as Sunnism, which is the largest one, and Shiism, and both can be further split up into different schools of thought, schools of jurisprudence and political movements. However, there exist sects across the Muslim world ascribing, at least in part, to Islam but who are rejected by both Sunni and Shia Muslims as being part of their respective orthodoxy, effectively condemning these sects to an existence of Islamic heterodoxy, or heresy.
In addition to the three pre-modern sects of the Nuṣayriyya, Durziyya and Yazīdiyya, the 19th century of the Gregorian calendar saw the rise of three modern sects deviating from the accepted religious beliefs held by Sunnism and Shiism. Under the guidance of self-proclaimed prophets, these movements grew into full-blown religions in the decades to follow. Mirzā Ghulām Aḥmad (1835 -1908) founded the so-called Aḥmadiyya, also known as Qādiyāniyya, in British India. To the west, ʿAlī Muḥammad Shīrāzī (1819-1850) founded the Bābiyya, proclaiming himself to be the Bāb (Gate) to the Twelfth (hidden) Imam of Shiism. In addition to his metaphysical and legislative teachings, the Bāb proclaimed the arrival of a great Promised One, a Messianic figure who God shall make manifest and who will establish His Kingdom on earth.
It was of little surprise that an eschatological title of such great importance soon got claimed in the aftermath of Shīrāzī’s execution. The Promised One came in the form of a Persian Bābī adherent called Mirzā Ḥusayn ʿAlī Nūrī (1817-1892), who proclaimed his prophethood in 1863 in the city of Baghdad. He adopted the name BahāʾAllāh, translated as the Glory or Splendor of God. To further empower his legitimacy as prophet of God, Nūrī claimed to have finally revealed al-Ism al-Aʿẓam, God’s Greatest Name. Both Sunni and Shia Islam ascribe a non-exhaustive list of 99 divine names (known in Arabic as al-Asmāʾ al-Ḥusnā) unto God, known by mankind through the Qur’an and the Prophetic Tradition. However, it is generally believed that God has a so-called Greatest Name, a 100th name He has hidden from mankind. It was narrated by Abū Umāma that the prophet Muḥammad said: “God’s Greatest Name is the one if He got called upon through it, He answers. It is (hidden) in three chapters of the Qur’an, in al-Baqara, Āl ʿImrān and ṬāHā.”
So Mirzā Ḥusayn ʿAlī Nūrī proclaimed that this 100th Name, the Greatest Name, was no longer hidden and was actually al-Bahāʾ (البهاء), the name he had adopted. This epithet, Bahāʾ Allāh, was famously made into calligraphy by a Persian calligrapher and Bahāʾī called Mishkīn Qalam (1826 – 1912). This calligraphy praises both God and His self-proclaimed messenger, because it’s an artistic representation of the sentence Yā Bahāʾ al-Abhā (O Glory of the Most Glorious), calling directly upon Nūrī and mentioning God as well. This rendering became popular among all adherents, and is ubiquitous throughout the Bahāʾī community.
Unlike other heresies of Islam, like the Nuṣayriyya, Yazīdiyya and Durziyya, the Bahāʾī faith isn’t ethno-esoteric in any way. It’s rather a perennial movement teaching the essential message of all religions and the unity of all worshipers, while upholding a distinct religious tradition of its own. There are as a matter of fact about six million adherents of the Bahāʾiyya, with Houses of Worship in countries like Australia, Israel, the United States, India, Germany and Chile. According to research published in a Foreign Policy Magazine article, the Bahāʾiyya has a growth-rate of 1.7% as of 2007.
In addition to the symbol of the “Greatest Name”, Bahāʾī worshipers often wear a characteristic signet ring with a seal said to be designed by ʿAbd al-Bahāʾ (1844–1921), son of Mirzā Ḥusayn ʿAlī Nūrī and his official successor. The seal, which can be seen at the top of this post, represents humanity’s connection to God and is a monogram for God’s Name al-Bahāʾ. As explained by Bahāʾī adherent Abū al-Qāsim Fayḍī in his Conqueror of Hearts (2002), the symbol serves as “a visual representation of the relationships between the worlds of God, of Revelation and of humanity”. It appears for religious decorative purposes on rings, boxes, ceramics and other imagery.
Omer Sayadi (*1993) is a former student of the Catholic University of Leuven with a special love for the Middle East and North Africa. After receiving his Master’s degree in Arabic Language and Islamic Studies, he’s working with both refugees from the region as well as foreigners seeking to learn the Dutch language. He wrote columns on Islam in Europe and migration, and started MENA Symbolism as a means of combining everything history, politics, symbolism and society in one place.