The Names of the Bahá’í Months: Separating Fact from Fiction

In one of the forums for the course on The Writings of the Báb, a student asked this question: “If Nineteen Day Feasts are named after attributes of God how can “Questions” be an attribute?” Faculty member Dr. Moojan Momen answered with a lesson about historical Iran and Shí’í Islam:

The key to answering the question, Dr. Momen said, lies in the first part of the question: “If Nineteen Day Feasts are named after attributes of God.”

Who says that the Nineteen Day Feasts are named after attributes of God? The names of the months of the Badí` calendar (the Bábí/Bahá’í calendar) were taken from a Shí’í dawn prayer (Du`á Sahar) for the month of the Islamic Fast (Ramadán) revealed by the Fifth Shí’í Imám, Muhammad al-Báqir, who urged his followers to recite the prayer because,

if people knew the greatness (‘azamat) of this supplication before God, the speed with which it would [enable the devotee to] be answered, they would certainly kill each other with swords in order to obtain it. And if I took an oath that the ism Allāh al-a`am (Most Great Name of God) is in this prayer, I would be stating the truth. Thus, when you recite this supplication, recite it with all concentration and humility and keep it hidden from other than his people [i.e. non-Shí’ís]. (All translations are by Stephen N. Lambden and may be found in http://www.hurqalya.pwp.blueyonder.co.uk/03-Biblical-islam-BBst/dawnP.htm.)

As you know the first Bahá’í month is Bahá. This prayer by Muhammad al-Báqir begins [translated in full in the source above]:

I beseech Thee by Thy Bahā’ (Splendor) at its most splendid (abhā’)
for all Thy Splendor (bahā’) is truly resplendent (bahiyy)
I, verily, O my God!
beseech Thee by the fullness of Thy Splendor (bahā’).

If you scan the prayer’s twenty-two verses, you will find that the names of the months in the Badí` calendar appear in the prayer in the same order (except that the twelfth and thirteenth months, ‘Ilm and Qudrat, are reversed, but this may just be in some manuscripts). In the fifteenth stanza of the prayer you will find the following: 

O my God! I beseech Thee by Thy Masā’il (Questions) which are most
Agreeable (ahabb) of Thee
for all of Thy Concerns (masā’il) are truly beloved (habīb).
I, verily, O my God! beseech Thee by the whole of Thine affairs (masā’il).

As you can see from this translation, masā’il can be translated in a number of ways: questions, concerns, affairs, as well as problems, propositions, precepts. None of these words, however, are names of God.

Hence the Badí` calendar was not created by the Báb sitting down and thinking up a list of divine attributes. Rather, it was derived from a preexisting religious text to which the Báb has been faithful. You might think of the naming of the Bahá’í months as a way of honoring a text that was singled out by the Fifth Imam as containing the Greatest Names of God. Thus this was a way for the Báb covertly to point to Bahá’u’lláh as He did in so many of His other Writings.

In later years, Bahá’ís pointed to this prayer and said to Shí’ís that, if Imam Báqir is right and the Greatest Name of God is in this prayer, it is only right that it should have been given precedence and mentioned first in the list—and thus the Greatest Name is Bahá.

The Báb only needed 19 names as He wanted to create a calendar of 19 months. His dispensing with the last verse is perhaps even more evidence that His main intention was to highlight the name Bahá’. In the Persian Bayán, the Báb says that the first month of each year–which is the month Bahá’–is dedicated to Him whom God shall make manifest (Bayán vahid 5, chapter 3).

The point, Dr. Moojan concludes, is that the idea that all of the Bahá’í months are attributes of God is one that Bahá’ís have imposed upon the names of the months, and thus “Questions” seems anomalous.

But the Báb may have intended something else by the list of names that appear in the Bahá’í calendar.

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In preparing this statement for this website, Dr. Momen also added the following:

The Shi`i Dawn Prayer in fact has 22 verses, and those after the 19th verse focus on other words: Mann (benevolence), Ayat (verses, signs), and the last verse on both Sha’n (standing, state or condition) and Jabarut (which is difficult to translate in this context but Stephen Lambden has translated it as omnipotence and power). The Bab only wanted 19 names as He wanted to create a calendar of 19 months. His dispensing with the last verses is perhaps even more evidence of the main intention of the Bab was to highlight the name Baha’. In the Persian Bayan, the Bab says that the first month of each year – which is the month Baha’ – is dedicated to Him whom God shall make manifest (Bayan vahid 5, chapter 3).

In fact there is more than one tablet of Baha’u’llah in which God is called “al-Mas’úl” – “the One who is Questioned.” In one tablet for example the recipient of the tablet Ibrahim is addressed at the start of the tablet thus: “Ibrahim the questioner, who questioned his Lord in the past and God answered him out of His Bounty and verily He is the One Questioned and the Answerer (or perhaps: the Who is Questioned and the One who gives Answers).” (Ma’idih Asimani, vol. 8, p. 171). So, if one of the attributes of the God is “The One Questioned” then the noun from that could concievably be considered a Name of God. It is of course clear that it is the Manifestation of God Who is questioned and Who answers but that is true for all of the Names and Attributes of God. Humanity only knows them as they are manifested by the Manifestation of God – not as they are within the Essence of God.

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Dr. Momen will be faculty for four courses in 2013:

Understanding Bahá’í History, 03/05/13

Introduction to Shi’i Islam, 05/01/13

Kitáb-i-Íqán, 08/15/13

Life of Bahá’u’lláh, 11/01/13