Scripture as Literature
H-Bahai
Research Notes in Shaykhi, Babi and Baha'i Studies,Vol. 3, no. 2 (April 1999)



Scripture as Literature

by Frank Lewis



This paper was delivered at a Haj Mehdi Arjomand conference in Wilmette in 1993 and "published" electronically on the Talisman network. The original paper on the Hidden Words was read at a Los Angeles Baha'i History conference in 1985. An expanded (and fully footnoted) version was published in the Baha'i Studies Review vol. 7 (1997), 125-46. The electronic version of this text was produced in ASCII format which necessitated the use of a rather inelegant transliteration scheme. Anyone wishing to cite this paper should refer to the printed version in the Baha'i Studies Review, which is expanded somewhat and has the correct diacritical marks.




In the mid 14th Century A.D., the Italian poet Petrarch wrote of his courtly love for Laura:

Bendetto sia'l giorno e'l mese et l'anno
e la stagione e'l tempo et l'ora e'l punto
e'l bel paese e'l loco ov'io fuit giunto
da'duo begli occhi che legato m'anno
(from Sonnet #47)

Blessed be the day and the month and the year
and the season and the time and the hour
and the instant and the beautiful countryside
and the place where I was struck by the two
lovely eyes that have bound me.

The similarity with the "Blessed is the Spot" prayer is likely a coincidence, but it serves as a reminder of the essentially poetic or literary quality of the Revelation of Baha'u'llah. Within the boundaries of a given human language, the Manifestation must pour divine truth into a particular form and Baha'u'llah has chosen in many instances a particular literary model as the vessel to hold his Revelation.

Christians have been worried for some centuries about the relationship between pagan literature and scripture and the confluence of both the Jewish and the pagan Hellenistic traditions in the formation of Christian culture. Konrad of Hirsau, who died about 1150 A.D., recounts that a pupil once asked a teacher to prove that it is not harmful to study the pagan Latin and Greek authors and poets, whereupon the teacher replies:

Would you reject the writings of Moses and the Prophets because in places they borrow words and expressions from pagan writers? Have I not already told you that all that is true that has ever been said by any human beings or all that is correct that has ever been thought has come from Him Who created us?

In the Islamic context, in the 9th Century A.D., the doctrine of the inimitability of the Qur'an, *i`jaz al-Qur'an*, began to take shape, with Arab theologians and rhetoricians holding to the notion that the Qur'an itself was a miracle (indeed, the word !yat or verse is the same word as that used for a divine sign or miracle), either because of its contents or because God prevented Mohammad's contemporaries from composing a stylistically similar work. The Qur'an came to be seen as an uncreated work, the exact words of which were recorded in a heavenly tablet (Lawh Mahfuz), which was so lofty in its phrasing and its content that mere mortals could not imitate it. There is some justification for this view in the Qur'an itself, but it seems clear that Muhammad himself recognized the roots of his rhyming prose style (saj`) in the prognostications of sooth-sayers (kAhin, kuhhAn) and the considerable stories about Moses, Abraham, Jesus and the other Semitic prophets from Biblically-derived sources and from Arab folklore. The particular form and expression of the truths of the Qur'an, therefore, is indebted to the literary milieu in which it was revealed.

In the Baha'i context, we do not have an exact parallel to the doctrine of the inimitablity of the Qur'an. The Bab, who was criticized by the Shi`i `ulama who opposed him for his occasional failure to conform to the expected norms of Arabic grammar, replied this way in the First chapter of the Second Vahid of the Persian Bayan:

Va agar nokteh giri dar e`rAb-e qarA'at yA qavA`ed-e `arabiyeh shavad, mardud ast zirA keh in qavA`ed az AyAt bar dAshteh mi-shavad nah AyAt bar AnhA jAri mi-shavad

And if exception be taken on the basis of vocalization/declension/conjugation or the rules of Arabic grammar, it is groundless, for such rules are derived from revealed verses, and the revealed verses do not flow forth according to them.

Indeed, in the case of the scholars of the eighth to tenth century AD who codified the principles of Arabic grammar, the Koran, along with pre-Islamic poetry, was used as a touchstone text to prove what the correct rules of grammar were. The Bab, therefore, suggests in this passage that, instead of criticizing his grammar, people should realize that the Bayan is revealed by God, and the principles of grammar should be derived from it, rather than that it should be tested according to the rules of grammar. In the same chapter, he alludes to the doctrine of the inimitability of the Qur'an :

xodAvand qor'An rA be-a`lA `olovv-e fesAhat nAzel farmud va u rA mo`jezeh-ye rasul allAh qarAr dAd...xodAvand-e `alam kalemAt-e qorAniyyeh rA be-sha'ni nAzel farmudeh keh agar mA `alA al-arz jam` shavand va be-xvAhand Ayeh dar moqAbel-e AyAt-e qor'An biyAvarand, nemitavAnand

and applies it to the Bayan as well, citing as proof of its divine origin the fact that 1000 verses are revealed by the pen of the Bab in the space of five hours.

Although the Bab pointed to the speed with which he revealed verses as a proof of their divine origins, and seems to have made a claim similar to the Qur'anic claim about the inability of others beside the Manifestation to produce verses like it, this does not seem to have developed into a Baha'i doctrine. The Guardian, makes a similar point about the speed with which Baha'u'llah revealed his books and tablets--just 2 days and 2 nights in the case of the Kitab-i-Iqan, but there is no firm concept of Baha'u'llah's writings as inimitable. In Citadel of Faith, the Guardian describes Baha'u'llah's teachings as having "matchless potency," and speaks once in passing of "His matchless utterance" in another work but he has also called Tahirih's poems "matchless" and has spoken of the Kitab-i-Iqan, as did E.G. Browne, in terms of its literary qualities, as a representative of the neo-classical b!z-gasht movement in 19th century Persian literature, which strove to achieve the simplicity and concision of pre-Mongol Persian prose. Of the Iqan's style, the Guardian writes:

A model of Persian prose, of a style at once original, chaste and vigorous, and remarkably lucid, both cogent in argument and matchless in its irresistible eloquence, this Book, setting forth in outline the Grand Redemptive Scheme of God, occupies a position unequalled by any work in the entire range of Baha'i literature, except the Kitab-i-Aqdas, Baha'u'llah's Most Holy Book. (God Passes By, pages 138-139)

The Guardian, in this description of the Iqan, was apparently concurring with E.G. Browne's high estimation in his A Literary History of Persia, who contrasts the style of the Iqan to the "flabby, inflated, bombastic style" characterized by much of the intervening period:

Yet simplicity and directness is to be found in modern as well as in ancient writers of Persian verse and prose; the Iqan ("Assurance") of the Babis, written by Baha'u'llah about A.D. 1859 [the actual date appears to have been 1278/1861-2 as per the English translation of the Iqan, p226] is as concise and strong in style as the Chahar Maqalih, composed some seven centuries earlier.

Likewise, I propose in this paper to look at the writings of Baha'u'llah in these terms, as revealed texts in dialogue with the literary traditions of Iran and the Arab world. Scholars of the Old Testament have undertaken to examine the genres or forms (like so many other modern approaches to the Bible, Form criticism was pioneered by Germans who spoke of these genres as "gattung") of writing upon which the various books of the Bible, such as the Wisdom literature of Ecclesiastes and Proverbs, the liturgical literature used at Temple services found in the Psalms, etc., in order to understand how that literature would have originally been used in its real-life context, or "sitz im leben" and what shape writings of such genres would have been expected to take. As John Barton describes it:

A Gattung or genre is a conventional pattern, recognizable by certain formal criteria (style, shape, tone, particular syntactic or even grammatical structures, recurring formulaic patterns), which is used in a particular society in social contexts which are governed by certain formal conventions.

There are several reasons I propose that we should consider Baha'u'llah's revealed works in this light:

Some of you may object that literature is a human product and that it is not particularly remarkable if human authors are influenced by the literary history that proceeds them. In the case of the Manifestation, however, who speaks with the voice of God, some may suppose that ordinary literature could not influence his expression. However, because scripture is revealed through the vehicle of human language, it must therefore accomodate human literary and linguistic conventions. If it failed to do so, it could not be understood. Indeed, Baha'u'llah points out in many places that divine Revelation assumes a form other than its pure state in order that mortal beings may understand. For example, from the Aqdas:

These words are to your measure, not to God's. To this testifieth that which is enshrined within His knowledge, if ye be of them that comprehend; and to this the tongue of the Almighty doth bear witness, if ye be of those who understand. I swear by God, were We to lift the veil, ye would be dumbfounded.

hAdhA dhikrI `alA qadrikum lA `alA qadri'llAhi

and again, from the Hidden Words:

All that I have revealed unto thee with the tongue of power, and have written for thee with the pen of might, hath been in accordance with thy capacity and understanding, not with My state and the melody of My voice.

(NazalnAhu `alA qadrika wa lah.nika, lA `alA sha'nI wa lah.nI)

The word *lah.n*, which essentially means "tune" or "melody," is translated by the Guardian in its second occurence in this passage as "the melody of My voice" and the first time as "understanding." Thus, revelation is a melody or langauge or accent, as it were, comparable to the language of mankind, not to that of God, and therefore obviously susceptible to the influences of human forms of speech.

That Baha'u'llah was familiar and conversant with the literary history of Persian and Arabic is abundantly clear from even a cursory examination of his writings. He makes references to lines of verse from a number of Persian poets and makes ample and powerful use of the symbols of his literary tradition. Though not formally educated in a *madreseh*, Baha'u'llah was tutored at home and was, of course, familiar with his own culture, which was and continues to be heavily influenced by its literary and specifically poetic heritage. Thus, although Baha'u'llah states that "we perused not the books which men possess and we acquired not the learning current amongst them," nevertheless, he explicitly tells us:

whenever we desire to quote the sayings of the learned and of the wise, presently there will appear before the face of Thy Lord in the form of a tablet all that which hath appeared in the world and is revealed in the Holy Books and Scriptures. Thus do We set down in writing that which the eye perceiveth.

KullumA aradnA an nadhkura bayAnAti'l-`ulamA'i wa'l-hukamA'i yazharu mA zahar fi'l-`Alam wa mA fi'l-kutub wa'z-zubur fI lawhin imAma wajhi rabbika, narA wa naktub...

Baha'u'llah's writings, much of which have yet to be published, are believed to number about 15,000 documents, including prayers, letters, tablets and books in Persian and Arabic, all of which are regarded as divinely revealed scripture. For the purposes of preliminary research, Baha'u'llah's writings can be broadly divided into two periods: the first from his imprisonment in 1852 through the end of his stay in Baghdad; and the second from the public announcement of his claim to be a Manifestation of God in 1863 to the end of his life in 1892. The latter period includes among other categories, Tablets proclaiming to the Kings, rulers and clergy of Europe and Islamdom the advent of his Revelation; the Kitab-i-Aqdas, a book which establishes new laws for the Baha'i community, abrogating much of the Islamic and Babi shari`a; a series of tablets and epistles variously called lawh, surih, risAlih, which outline his blueprint for collective international security and world government. This last category does not have a strong Islamic prototype--indeed, it appeals more to the spirit of the 1815 Congress of Vienna and Immanuel Kant's 1795 tractate Perpetual Peace: a Philosophical Sketch (Zum ewigen Frieden: Ein philosophischer Entwurf) than to Islamic tradition. However, it ought to be mentioned in this context that Abu'l-Fazl (1551-1602), the vizier of the Moghul emperor Akbar in his court history *Akbar Nameh* includes the phrases *Solh-e koll*, meaning tolerance for all and being at peace with all others, and *Mahabbat-e koll*, meaning universal love in which the welfare of all people, irrespective of their religion is fostered, which seem to presage the concepts of the Lesser and Most Great Peace in Baha'u'llah's revealed tablets. Likewise, in the Lawh-i-Ra'is, where Baha'u'llah describes a puppet show which he viewed in his youth, in which all the pomp and glory of the material world and all the important personages were laid to rest in a box by the puppeteer at the end of the show, the conclusions he draws from this event may be shaped somewhat by the *Ushtur Nameh* of Farid al-Din `Attar, who describes a Turkish puppet player folding all the puppets into the box of *Tawhid* or Divine unity after the performance.

The Kitab-i-Aqdas, on the other hand, is clearly conceived as being in the genre of previous scriptures--the greater Book of the people of the Book, particularly the Qur'an--which it mirrors stylistically by jumping from one subject to another sometimes without apparent logical order. Baha'u'llah's Tablets to the Rulers of the World, meanwhile, clearly appeal to the tradition preserved by the biographer of Muhammad, Ibn Ishaq, that he sent emmisaries to the Byzantine emperor Heraclius, the Persian Shah Chosroe and various Arab potentates calling them to Islam. It is on the earlier period, however, from 1853-1863 that I would now like to focus attention. The writings from this period, which unlike the revelations of Muhammad, seem to have come at will, even though they differed from normal speech or thought, are considered to be divinely revealed (manzul), even though Baha'u'llah did not make his public claim to be a Manifestaion until the end of this period. The earliest text in Baha'u'llah's corpus seems to be a 19-line Persian poem in the Sufi tradition entitled *Rashh-e `amA* (Sprinklings from the Cloud of Unknowing) dating to 1269/1852-3, which contains the *radif* or refrain *-e mA mi-rizad*, "it pours from us," as in the opening line:

rash-e `amA az jazbeh-ye mA mi-rizad
From our rapture the sprinkles of the cloud of unknowing trickle down

Persian poets prior to Baha'u'llah, from the Safavid period forward, had used this refrain, as in the last line of the following poem by SA'eb (1607-1675):

Mishavad da`vi-ye xun ruz-e qiyAmat sA'eb
rang-e har gol keh ze nazzAreh-ye mA mirizad

There will be a bloody fight on the day of Judgement, Sa'eb
over the color of every rose that wilts under our gaze

A 217-line poem in Arabic, complete with auto-commentary bearing the Persian title Qasideh-ye varqA'iyyeh (The Dove Ode) was written between 1270-1272/1854-6 for a certain Shaykh Isma'il, the head of the Khalidiyeh branch of the Naqshbandi Sufis, who had made Baha'u'll!h's acquinataince in the mountains of Iraqi Kurdistan, and, being impressed with his piety and knowledge, requested him to write a *qasidah* in imitation of the famous *TA'iyatu'l-KubrA* or Magnificent Ode rhyming in "Ti" by Ibn al-FArid, the famous mystic poet who composed his poem 600 years earlier (those of you who are interested, you may compare the translation offered by Reynold Nicholson of Ibn al-Farid in *Studies in Islamic Mysticism* (Cambridge UP, 1921) to the translation and exchange over Baha'u'llah's poem in BSB v2#2 #3 and #4, Dec 1983 and March 1984. In such poems, Baha'u'llah incorporates Babi theology and a measured Sufi vocabulary which rejects the monism of both *wahdat al-shuhUd* and *wahdat al-wujUd* varieties.

Througout their ministries, Baha'u'llah, AB and also SE wrote a great number of personal confessional prayers (Monajat), a genre canonized by the eleventh century Sufi prose writer `Abdollah Ansari. In some of these the echoes of quotations or near- quotations from earlier prayers or poems can occasionally be heared, for example, in the prayer-like tablet beginning Ay jAn feshAn-e yAr-e bi-neshAn, which quotes a line of verse from Sa`di:

`AqelAn-e xusheh-cin az serr-e layli ghAfel-and
in karAmat nist joz majnun-e xerman suz rA

The learned who but glean the fields of love are ignorant of Layli's secret.
Only Majnun who scorches his whole harvest can know this bounty

Of course, this quote conjures up a whole range of associated images from the cycle of stories about the star-crossed lovers, Layli and Majnun, just as would a single sentence from Juliet to Romeo in an English audience: "Swear not by the moon, th'inconstant moon," let's say.

In the early period Baha'u'llah also revealed a series of esoteric commentaries (tafsir) on various verses or Suras of the Qur'an and the New Testament, usually written in response to questions or requests submitted to him. The most notable of these is the Kitab-i-Iqan, which expounds Bahau'llah's doctinre of progressive revelation by focussing on the passage in the Qur'an (33:40) on the Seal of the Prophets, as well as the passage in Matthew (24:29-31) about the Son of Man coming in the Clouds of Glory. Although the Qur'an commentary genre usually set out to cover the entire Qur'an verse-by-verse, there are a few works, such as Ibn `Arabi's Fosus al-Hekam (Bezels of Wisdom) and some of Mulla Sadra's treatises, which treat specific themes in the Qur'an or single verses, as does the Kitab-i-Iqan.

Certain phrases can be seen to have Biblical precedents, such as Baha'u'llah's frequent: *budeh va hast va xvAhad bud*, (as it was, is and shall be), which recalls the Book of Revelations IV:8: "Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord God Almighty, which was, and is, and is to come," or the Gloria Patri in the Book of common Prayer: "As it was in the beginning, is now and ever shall be, world without end."

Also, the despairing lament of the Fire Tablet, "How long..." which occurs in similar contexts approximately 30 times in the Psalms, for example, Psalm 6:4 and Psalm 13. Then whole sentences are sometimes borrowed from the Hebrew or the Arabic translations of the Bible that Baha'u'llah would have been familiar with such as psalm 51:12, which in the KJV reads: "Create in me a clean heart, o God and renew a right spirit within me," which is, of course, simply an older and inferior translation of the Guardian's rendering of one of Baha's prayers:

Create in me a pure heart, O my God, and renew a tranquil conscience within me, O my Hope!

It is not surprising that the motifs and stylistics of scripture would find their way into Baha'u'llah's writings; after all, he tells us His writings are a new chapter in the book of scripture. Somewhat unexpected, though, are quotations from the works of poets, such as Sana'i (d. 525/1131), whom Baha'u'llah quotes in the Lawh-i Ra`is:

Hakim SanA'i `alayhi al-rahmat gofteh:

pand girid ay siyAhi-tAn gerefteh jA-ye pand
pand girid ay sepidi-tan damideh bar `edhAr


The sage Sana'i has said:

Take counsel o ye who are blackened rather than counselled
Take counsel o ye whose beards have begun to whiten!

Sana'i was received as a mystic and homiletic poet by the literary tradition, though he also wrote much profane poetry as well. According to the modern edition of his Divan, the second hemistich of this poem is somewhat incorrectly quoted (*`odhr Arid* is given rather than *pand girid*, though it has little change on the overall import of the verse). This is the third line of a very famous poem and Baha'u'llah's quotation of it would probably call to the mind of an educated 19th century reader the two previous lines of the poem, as well:

ay xodAvandAn-e mAl al-e`tebAr al-e`tebAr
ay xodA-xvAnAn-e qAl al-e`tedhAr al-e`tedhAr
pish az An k-in jAn-e `odhr Avar foru mi-rad ze notq
pish az An k-in chashm-e `ebrat bin foru mAnad ze kAr
pand girid.....


O lords of wealth, take heed, take heed!
O those who call upon God in name only, repent, repent!
Before your forgiveness-seeking soul falls forever silent
before your lesson-learning eye closes forever shut
take counsel......

Perhaps the most interesting work of Baha'u'llah, at least insofar as genre studies are concerned, is the Hidden Words (Kalemat-e Maknuneh), a work of rhymed prose composed/revealed in 1274/1858 while Baha'u'llah was in Baghdad. Though conceived as an organic unity, *Kalemat-e Maknuneh* consists of short independent ethical and mystical counsls, 71 in Arabic and 83 in Persian. This book was originally known by the Babis among whom it circulated in manuscript form as the *Sahifeh-ye fAtemiyeh* (The Book of Fatemeh), thus identifying it with the Twelver Shi`i tradition of the *moshaf fAtemeh* (scroll of Fatemeh), a series of inspirint thoughts supposedly whispered into the ear of Fatemeh by an angel to console her for the death of her father--the Prophet Muhammad-- and was believed to be handed down by the Imams along with the weapons of the Prophet. Of course, we do not now possess any such text, if it ever did exist, so that we have here a curious case of intertextuality with a non-textual text, or more precisely, the apocryphal tradition of a text. Thus the name--"Hidden Words." The Arabic introduction to the Kalemat-e Maknuneh alludes to this tradition and to the revelations that Baha'u'llah had received:

hAdhA mA nuzzila min jabarUti'l-`izzati bi lisAni'l-qudrati wa'l-quwwati `alA al-nabiyyina min qablu wa inna akhadhnA jawAhirahu wa aqmasnAhu qamIsa'l-ikhtisAr fad.lan `alA al-ahbAr


This is that which hath descended (nuzzila) from the realm of glory, uttered by the tongue of power and might and revealed unto the prophets of old. We have taken the inner essence thereof and clothed it in the garment of brevity as a token of grace unto the righteous....(trans. of Shoghi Effendi)

Although the Hidden Words can be seen in the broader context of wisdom literature (hikam) and the homiletic tradition, especially the counsels of `Ali as related in the *Nahj al-balAghah*, it is specifically, though not explicitly, to the *Hadith qudsi*, or sacred hadith, that the Hidden Words appeal. Generally held by Muslims to be the direct word of God, though not necessarily miraculous in nature as is always maintained for the verses of the Qur'an, the *hadith qudsi* were a favorite source of allusion for Sufis and Persian poets, and are often preceeded by addresses such as: *yA `ibAdi* (o my servant), *yA ibn Adam* (o son of Adam), etc. In the Kalemat-e Maknuneh, we find these addresses, and others similar to them--*yA ibn al-insAn* (O son of Man, an appelation of Christ in the Bible), *yA ibn al-rUh* (O son of Spirit), *yA ibna al-wujUd* (O son of Existence), as well as the language, and ideas of the *hadith qudsi*. Take, for example, the follwoing Arabic Hidden Word:

YA ibna'l-insAn kuntu fI qidami dhAti wa azaliyyati kaynUnati `araftu hubbi fIka khalaqtuka wa alqaytu `alayka mithAlI wa az.hartu laka jamAli


O Son of Man! Veiled in My immemorial being in the ancient eternity of My essence, I knew My love for Thee, therefore I created thee, have engraved on thee Mine image and revealed to thee My beauty. (trans. of Shoghi Effendi)

This passage ought to bring to mind the famous *hadith qudsi*:

kuntu kanzan makhfIyan fa-ah.babtu an `urafa fa-khalaqtu al- khalqa likay u`rafa


I was a hidden treasure and desired to be known, hence I created the creation in order to be known

There are numerous other parallels of this sort. For example, another of Baha'u'llah's Hidden Words alludes to the same Hadith, though with the love of God for man, rather than the love of God for God foregrounded (on which, see Abdu'l-Baha, SAQ):

yA ibna al-insAn ah.babtu khalqaka fa-khalaqtuka fa- ah.bibnI kay adhkuraka wa fI rUhi al-h.ayAti uthabbitaka


O Son of Man! I loved thy creation, hence I created thee. Wherefore do thou love Me, that I may name thy name and fill the soul with the spirit of life.

Compare also the following *hadith qudsi*

rasUl allAh qAla: qAla allAh: anfiq yA ibna Adama unfiq `alayka


The Messenger of God said: "God has said, `O Son of Adam! Spend upon (my creatures) that I may spend upon thee.

and the following Hidden Word:

unfiq mAlI `alA fuqarA'I li tunfaqa fI al-samA'i min kunUzi `izzin lA tafnA wa khazA'ini majdin lA tablA wa-lAkin wa `umrI, infAqu al-rUh.i ajmalu law tushAhidu bi `aynI


Bestow my wealth upon my poor, that in heaven thou mayest draw from stores of unfading splendor and treasures of imperishable glory. But by My life! To offer up thy soul is a more glorious thing couldst thou bu see with Mine eye. (trans. of Shoghi Effendi)

There are parallels between the Hidden Words and the Qur'an, as well:

wa idhA adhaqnA an-nAsa rahmatan farihU bihA wa in tus.ibhum sayyi'atun bimA qaddamat aydihim idhA hum yaqnat.Un (Q30:36)


When we make men to tast of a blessing they rejoice at it, but if evil befalls them because of what their own hands have wrought, then they despair.


yA ibn al-bashar in as.Abatka ni`matun la tafrah. bihA wa in tamassaka dhillatun la tah.zan minhA lianna kiltayhimA tazUlAni fI h.Inin wa tabIdAni fi waqtin (HW, A#


O Son of Man! Should prosperity befall thee, rejoice not, and should abasement come upon thee, grieve not, for both shall pass away and be no more. (trans. of Shoghi Effendi)

And finally, consider this *hadith qudsi*:

yA `ibAdi inni h.arramtu al-Z.ulma `alA nafsI wa ja`altuhu baynakum muh.arraman fa lA taz.AlamU


....O My Servants! I have forbidden oppression to Myself and have made it unlawful to you, therefore be not an oppressor one to another....

in light of this Persian Hidden Word (#64):

ay z.AlemAn-e arz.! az zolm dast-e khod rA kutah namA'id ke qasam yAd nemudeh'am az z.olm-e ah.adi nagozaram va in `ahdi-st ke dar lowh.-e mah.fuz mah.tum dAshtam va be khAtem-e `ezz makhtum


O Oppressors on Earth! Withdraw your hands from tyranny, for I have pledged Myself not to forgive any man's injustice. This is My covenant which I have irrevocably decreed in the preserved tablet and sealed it with my seal of glory.

The Persian Hidden Words are even more intriguing than the Arabic from a literary point of view, in that they tend to be less proverbial and more esoteric, more firmly rooted in the later tradition of rhymed prose (saj`), and frequently allude to well- known motifs and episodes from Persian poetry. Although perhaps the greater portion of his writings are in Arabic, it is primarily from the Persian literary tradtion, as opposed to the religious literature of Arabic, that Baha'u'llah's writings draw their motifs and models (with some exceptions, such as the Lawh-i Sultan). His early Persian prose works should be read in the light of the Sufi literary tradition, particularly as found (or at least as popularly received) in the major classical poets: `Attar, Sa`di, Rumi and Hafez, scattered lines of whose verse are quoted here and there in Baha'u'llah's epistolary works, especially *Haft vAdi* (Seven Valleys). There is surprisingly little stylistic influence from Babi texts, though a good deal of terminology and doctrine come from those sources. Similarities with the philosophical and theological prose tradition, particularly the illuminationist school, which tended to blend literary and philosophical prose, can also be found. It should be further remembered that Persian poets and prose writers in the 19th century had rejected the ornateness of the Indian style (sabk-e hendi) and had called for a return (bAz gasht) to the models of the 11th-13th centuries. Baha'u'llah's prose language in the Persian Hidden Words suggests the influence of Sa`di's *GolestAn* and Ansari's *MonAjAt*; undoubtedly additional examples and parallels can be isolated. The themes and motifs, on the other hand, were those that had saturated later Persian literature, and could be evoked by elliptical allusions that would resonate with and perhaps call to the reader's mind an elaborate series of associations, as in the first Persian Hidden Word, which reads almost like a catalog of classical motifs:

ay s.AhebAn-e hush va gush avval sorush-e dust in ast ay bolbol-e ma`navi joz dar golbon-e ma`Ani jAy ma-gozin va ay hodhod-e solaymAn-e `eshq joz dar sabA-ye jAnAn vat.an ma-gir va ay `anqA-ye baqA joz dar qAf-e vafA mahall ma-padhir in ast makAn-e to agar be lA-makAn be par-e jAn bar pari va Ahang-e maqAm-e khod rAyegAn namA'i


All Ye people that have minds to know and ears to hear: The first call of the Beloved is this: O Mystic nightingale! Abide not but in the rose-garden of the spirit. O Messenger of the Solomon of love! Seek thou no shelter except in the Sheba of the well-beloved, and O immortal phoenix! Dwell not save on the mount of faithfulness. Therein is thy habitation, if on the wings of the soul thou soarest to the realm of the infinite and seekest to attain thy goal. (trans. by Shoghi Effendi)

In the following Persian Hidden Word, the gnomic tradition (andarz) in Persian literature, which stretches back at least into Sassanian and probably into Parthian times, is clearly evident. This example, like most of the Persian Hidden Words, echoes with the aphoristic rhymed prose of Sa`di's *GolestAn*:

Ay dust dar rowze-ye qalb joz gol-e `eshq makAr va az dhayl-e bolbol-e hobb o showq dast madAr mos.Ah.ebat-e abrAr rA ghanimat dAn va az morAfeqat-e ashrAr dast o del har do bar dA


O friend! in the garden of thy heart plant naught but the rose of love, and from the nightingale of affection and desire, loosen not they hold. Treasure the companionship of the righteous and eschew all fellowship with the ungodly. (trans. by Shoghi Effendi)

The following (and final) example subtly alludes to the legends about the Prophet Muhammad's ascent into heaven (me`rAj):

ay pesar-e h.obb az to tA rafraf-e emtenA`-e qorb va sedreh-ye ertefA`-e `eshq qadam-i fAs.eleh qadam-e avval bar dAr va qadam-e digar bar `Alam-e qedam godhAr va dar sorAdeq-e khold vAred show pas be-shnow Anche az qalam-e `ezz nozul yAft


[Here I am using my own translation to emphasize certain points of the *me`rAj* legend]:

O Son of Love! you are but one step away from the *rafraf* that will take you to the impenetrable heights of nearness and the lote tree of the boundary of love Take the first step and with the second step enter into the world of pre-existence and the pavilion of eternity Then listen to what has been revealed by the Pen of Might

Here the reader is being told that s/he, too, can aspire in her own spiritual journey to repeat Muhammad's ascent to heaven on the *rafaf*. *Rafraf* can mean pillows or cushions, but since the Arabic root RFF has the connotation of flapping wings, these cushions are like flying carpets. Most versions of the legend have Muhammad riding on a mythical beast, *borAq*, a kind of winged donkey (the iconographic association with the Messiah riding into Jerusalem on an untamed ass is intentional) provided by the angel of Revelation, Gabriel. The *rafraf* will take us beyond the *sidrat al-muntahA* the lote tree beyond which there is no passing, which Muhammad on his *me`rAj* came within two bows' lengths of and gazed upon, with unswerving eyes (mA zAgha al-bas.ar) only to see that it was shrouded in mystery (idh yaghshA al-sidrata mA yaghshA, literally: when the lote tree was covered by what covered it). For the Qur'anic basis of this ascent to heaven, see the Qur'an 53:1- 18, which has, however, been elaborated in non-canonical materials, called the stories of the prophets (qis.as. al-anbiyA), similar to the Jewish haggadah. In the Sufi tradition, the light (nUr) of Muhammad's worship is what covered the tree. Although Muhammad stops at the *sidrat al-muntahA*, the lote tree beyond which there is no passing, Baha'u'llah tells us that we--the sons of love (*`eshq*, a term used technically by Sufis since the 2nd/9th century, to mean the mystic love of God, though exoterically it continues to mean romantic human love, as well)-- can take two steps beyond this, into the pre-eternal realm, where God's covenant was made with the soul, and into the eternal pavilion, where, according to Sufi interpretation, man will actually see God, a blessing that was denied to Moses on Sinai. Though Baha'u'llah invokes the Sufi's mythopoesis of the beatific vision of God in eternal paradise, God is ineffable, and cannot be seen or heard, as we know from numerous other Tablets. The human point of contact with the divine is through the revealed text, that which is revealed by the Pen of Might, and it is through what it has revealed that we make our internal ascent unto God. Scripture, then, which as we have seen flows in and through the medium of human language and literature, is man's vehicle (*rafraf*) to God. Having reached the proximity of the divine, however, we must take our own steps to reach the sanctum sanctorum. As Baha'u'llah states elsewhere, man could not bear the direct knowledge of the divine transcendence, so God reveals only a relative truth to man, that which can be understood in the form of human language. This is all that man requires to make that extra two-step leap into the pre-eternal and infinite realm. As the epilogue to the last Persian Hidden Word states:

I bear witness, O Friends! that the favor is complete, the argument fulfilled, the proof manifest and the evidence established. Let it now be seen what your endeavors in the path of detachment will reveal. In this wise hath the divine favor been fully vouchsafed unto you and unto them that are in heave and on earth.

Baha'u'llah was not, of course, the first to employ this topos and its associated imagery. The fact that many modern post-secular readers now have to consciously excavate this passage to discover its leitmotif should not make us doubt that this has been a favorite topos of many poets and was so ingrained in the poetic consciousness that it would have been immediately obvious to the initiated reader. Sana'i alludes to the same topos in this line from his *Sayr al-`ebAd elA al-ma`Ad* (The worshippers' journey to the promised here-after):

su-ye shahr-e qedam qadam bar dAr
khAneh-ye ostokhvAn be-sag bo-gdhAr


Take a step toward the city of pre-existence
Leave this house of bones to the dogs

Elsewhere, in his *H.adiqat al-h.aqiqat* (The Walled Garden of Truth), Sana'i says: *az to tA dust nist rah besyAr* (from you to the Friend there is but a little way to go). Well, at this point the doubting Thomists among you may be thinking that while the identification of these sources may help to appreciate the literary qualities of these works and the mystical allusions, they don't particularly help us to understand the texts better in a practical way. It would, however, be a great mistake to assume that only esoteric and symbolic allusions are lurking in the literary sediment. Juan Cole has shown in his article "Problems of Chronology in Baha'u'llah's `Tablet of Wisdom'" that echos of previous works may sometimes give us clues about the nature of what is being said; we can sometimes conclude on the basis of traceable allusions to previous works (historical works in the above case) that what is being said is metaphorical and historically or culturally-bound, statements that are *truthful*, but not necessarily *factual*. This can also be true in "legal" texts, as the following example from the Kitab-i-Aqdas illustrates, where, I think, it is necessary to know the Qur'anic parallels in order to understand the full intent of Baha'u'llah's law. In the Aqdas, v107 (p58), we find:

it is forbidden you to marry your father's wives
qad h.urrimat `alaykum azwAja abA'ikum

The Questions and Answers section indicates that the question of marriage between relatives is left to the UHJ. This of course, presents no particular problem, but is it not strange that Baha'u'llah should specifically forbid marriage to one's stepmother(s), while He does not appear to forbid marriage to one's own mother or sister or daughter?

This mystery can be easily solved if we assume that Baha'u'llah had in mind the Qur'anic laws about marrying one's relatives, found in Sura 4 (Surat al-nisA'). The Qur'an first establishes that one should not marry the wives one's father has married, i.e., one's step mother(s), and then launches into a much longer list in the next verse that includes mothers, daughters, sisters, father's sisters, mother's sisters, brother's daughers, sister's daughters, wet-nurses, foster-sisters, wives' mothers, step-daughters, daughters-in-law and two sisters. Indeed, if we compare the passages, we find that the Qur'anic verse begins with the same wording employed in the Aqdas: *h.urrimat `alaykum.* This, then, is an instance where quotation from a previous work apparently intends for us to summon up similar semiotically proximate passages which are not explicitly quoted. With one word, "wives," Baha'u'llah summons up the entire list of the Qur'an, given in two longish verses. Hence the meaning and content of the previous text, in this case the Qur'an, bleeds somewhat into the meaning and intent of Baha'u'llah's text, and we must be cognizant of where the quote comes from in order to recover the full context of meaning.

Indeed, many readers have expressed difficulty in understanding why the Kitab-i-Aqdas seems to jump from one subject to the next without any obvious logical connection. The principle of organization undergirding the structure of the Kitab-i-Aqdas can be answered by the literary model provided by the Qur'an. While it is true that the Aqdas was revealed piecemeal, Baha'u'llah (unlike Muhammad, who did not collect the Qur'an in written form) could have organized it logically, section by section, point by point, much as the treatises and manuals on Islamic law (fiqh) wer organized. But the language of God does not flow according to the language of men, as we have seen in the beginning. To follow such a logical plan of organization would have evoked associations of the genre of law books and the class of clerics. Baha'u'llah, who insists that he has not studied law and theology, appeals instead to the structure of the Qur'an with its juxtapositions, pericopes and disjunctions, as is appropriate to the claim that God has revealed the book.

Scholars have already focussed a great deal of attention on the literary criticism fo the Hebrew Bible. The various approaches of source criticism, form criticism and redaction criticism have taught us a great deal. More recently Robert Alter and Meir Sternberg have devoted attenton to the narrative and poetic art of the Hebrew Bible, while Frank Kermode and others have done the same for the New Testament. Eventually, some of these approaches may prove quite useful in deepening our understanding of Baha'u'llah's Writings and how meaning is internally produced in His texts. A pre-requisite to this avenue of inquiry is a general understanding of the sources, forms and genres to which these texts appeal. This process, as applied to the Hebrew Bible, has been disparagingly described by Edmund Leach as "unscrambling the omelette." Keeping the culinary metaphor, we might call this task sifting scripture, but i would propose that we think of it as a kind of literary archaeology, that seeks to recover the past lying just below surface of the text.




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