Invoking the Divine

We don’t often question the familiar. Common, ordinary things, things that have been with us since childhood, don’t usually seem worth much scrutiny. Yet nothing springs out of nowhere. Everything has a history, and sometimes it can be interesting or fun to dig into the meaning of something very ordinary. Occasionally, deep insights may even result.

Take, for instance, the word “God.” What does it mean? Not what is God, not what is God like, but what does the word mean? What is its etymology?

Modern English speakers inherit the word from Old English. “God” is derived from the Proto-Germanic gudan, which in turn derives from the Proto-Indo-European gutom. The meaning is not entirely clear, but is generally thought to be one of two things: to pour or libate, or to call or invoke. The meaning of the word “God” is thus either “one to whom sacrifices are made” or “one who is invoked.” Perhaps both.

Note that the word is Indo-European. It is not Semitic. The earliest Semitic writings use “il” or “el,” specifically the latter in the Old Testament. From this is derived the Arabic al-Ilah (“the deity” or “the God”), which probably became Allah. Muslims and Arab Christians alike use the word “Allah.” “Allah” and “God” mean one and the same thing. Likewise, in English translations of Baha’i literature, “Allah” is rendered as “God.”

Baha’is, though, use a few terms untranslated, including what is called “the Greatest Name.” These are all are references to Baha’u’llah, the Manifestation of God for our age. In one sense, Baha’u’llah Himself is the Greatest Name. In another, the name “Baha’u’llah” (“the Glory of God”) is the Greatest Name. Other forms include “Allah-u-Abha” (“God is the Most Glorious”) and “Ya Baha’u’l-Abha” (“O Thou Glory of the All-Glorious”). A well-known calligraphic form of the “Allah-u-Abha” is often found in Baha’i homes, and “Allah-u-Abha” is often used as a greeting. Also, Baha’u’llah instructs His followers to repeat it 95 times each day as a meditation. “Ya Baha’u’l-Abha” is used as an invocation, often as an expression of joy but at other times as well.

One further invocation used without translation is a prayer revealed by the Bab, Baha’u’llah’s forerunner: “Ya Allahu’l-Mustaghath”, which means, “O Thou God Who art invoked.” The Bab instructed His followers to recite this in times of trouble or difficulty, and it is generally considered by Baha’is to be among the most potent of prayers.

All of these short phrases have a single thing in common: they call upon God through His Manifestation. Put another way, they invoke “the One who is invoked.” There is great value in such invocation. The world is often a confused, confusing place. It can be hard to navigate and very easy to become distracted. Invocations have a focusing effect, turning our thoughts and feelings toward God and centering us in Him. I’ve recently discovered that using them in combination can have a powerful effect, particularly when seeking to overcome some personal failing. From time to time, I repeat “Allah-u-Abha” nine times, then “Ya Baha’u’l-Abha” nine times, then “Ya Allahu’l-Mustaghath” nine times. This is the work of less than a minute, yet during that time all but God sublimates like ice vanishing in the warmth of the springtime sun. Moreover, whatever issue is plaguing me is kept at bay through occasional invocations.

Naturally I can speak only for myself; the above practice is merely something I’ve found useful in my own life. You may choose to try it or not, or may adapt it in various ways. Regardless, the principle is that found in Qur’an 17:110 and cited by Baha’u’llah in The Seven Valleys:  “…by whichsoever (name) ye will, invoke Him: He hath most excellent names.”


The philosopher David Hume held that there is no rational reason to assume that the future will resemble the past. In the main, we do make that assumption, but we do so based on past experience and our sense that on the whole things stay pretty much the same from one day to the next. The sun has risen every morning for as long as humanity has been around, so we assume that it will do so tomorrow and the day after that and the day after that. Generally, such an assumption turns out to be correct.

But some days are just not like other days. One day about 66 million years ago, something big slammed into the Earth, and in the aftermath a mass extinction occurred. One day the sun will exhaust its supply of hydrogen, collapse upon itself, begin to fuse helium, and swell up into a red giant, engulfing our planet. There will be no more sunrises then.

Similarly with human affairs. Most days are pretty much like any other. But then one day a new invention changes the way we do things, or a terrorist attack alters the mindset and agenda of an entire nation, or a birth or a death alters the dynamics of a family.

Some two thousand years ago, Jesus spent three short years teaching things so radical that He was put to death in the most cruel fashion, and the world was forever altered. Such an event in the human world is like a significant asteroid strike in the astronomical world: infrequent, but with overwhelming consequences.

On the whole, the appearance of a Person who inaugurates an entirely new religious system only occurs on thousand-year time scales (in the range of, say, 500 to 1,500 years). Baha’is hold that it has happened again, with the advent of the Bab and Baha’u’llah in the mid-1800’s. The Bab’s brief six-year ministry, which culminated in his execution in 1850, unleashed a social upheaval in Persia that echos to this day through the continued persecution of Baha’is. Baha’u’llah, who spent 40 years as a prisoner and an exile, enduring all manner of hardship and suffering over the course of that time, set in motion forces that have encompassed the whole world. His followers are drawn from all nationalities, races, and ethnic groups, and although still numerically small, the Baha’i Faith is the second most widespread religion in the world. It may not be too presumptuous to say that it will, in time, alter the world as radically as Christianity did. That is, the future may resemble the past by becoming something new.

Among the changes foreseen by Baha’u’llah is the union of all of humanity. This involves radical shifts in perspective as well as in how different subgroups of the human family interact. It predicts a realignment of political forces and is fundamentally anchored in the spiritual transformation of individuals. We do not know what this future will look like in any detail; at best, we have some broad outlines. But ‘Abdu’l-Baha often spoke of the world being transformed into a “paradise” (literally “garden”). While this shouldn’t be viewed as a utopian vision, it does indicate the degree of change required. In relative terms, the future world will be a vast improvement over its current state.

Many people laugh off such a vision, assuming that the future must resemble the past. But if something extraordinary has already happened, then it’s reasonable to expect extraordinary things will come of it. This is asteroid-strike time, spiritually speaking.

Moreover, as somebody some might care to listen to once said, “With God all things are possible.” (Matt. 19-25; Mark 10:26; Luke 18:26) Thus, the unification of humanity is not at all impossible. Indeed, if it is God’s will, it is assured.