H-BahaiTranslations of Shaykhi, Babi and Baha'i Texts, vol. 5, no. 2 (May, 2001)



Baha'u'llah

Tablet of the Son
(Jesus)

 

Letter of the Middle Edirne Period circa 1866

Translation* and Commentary

Juan R. I. Cole
University of Michigan

 

 

 



From: Juan Cole 
To: H-NET List for Bahai Studies
Sent: Tuesday, February 06, 2001 6:25 PM
Subject: Tablet of the Son 1



I quoted earlier from a Tablet printed in *Iqtidarat* (Tehran: Baha'i
Publishing Trust, n.d.), pp. 78-105, in which Baha'u'llah spoke of the ways
in which a new revelation imbues everyone with the ability to manifest the
divine emanations and to answer difficult religious questions for
themselves, and in which he instructs his followers to do so.  This tablet
is of extreme intrinsic interest.  It appears to me to be an Edirne-era
work, and the complaints about the Azalis ("people of the Bayan") are
restricted to their blindness, with no mentions of such perfidies as the
alleged attempt on Baha'u'llah's life.  Its only fairly direct criticism of
Azal is that he has started claiming to be the Bab's vicar or vasi, after
the next Manifestation had already appeared, which lesser claim is
ridiculed as anachronistic under the situation. It may be, then, that it
dates from 1866 or so, though it could be later.

This Tablet quotes at length an earlier letter written for a priest in
Istanbul about Jesus's crucifixion imbuing the world with creative
energies.  That seems to me a very Eastern Orthodox vision of Jesus, with
his energeia or divine energies, and probably indicates Greek Christian
influence on Baha'u'llah's thinking in Edirne.  (This priest lived in
Istanbul and corresponded with Baha'u'llah from there).  The Jesus passage
is loosely translated in Gleanings XXXVI (36). It seems to me that the
Jesus passage is among the more striking ones in this Tablet, and since
Jesus is therein called "the Son" (al-Ibn), I thought the Tablet of the Son
would be a good title for this Tablet.  (Muslims tended *not* to call Jesus
"the Son" because it would imply the Christian idea of 'the Son of God,'
which the Qur'an rejected.  Baha'u'llah does not use the entire phrase, but
it is implied; otherwise of Whom is Jesus the 'Son'?  The Gleanings portion
leaves out some interesting comments on Peter's apostacy and on John the
Baptist.

I will translate a passage every couple of days.  The first portion is very
focused on polemics and apologetics with regard to the Azali Babis.
However, it does bear on the issue of individual self-expression, since it
dwells on the station of human beings as manifestations of the divine Names.

cheers   Juan

-----------

To: H-NET List for Bahai Studies
Sent: Thursday, February 08, 2001 5:08 AM
Subject: Re: Tablet of the Son 2


 . . . You wrote:

>The only difficulty I have in contextualizing this remarkable passage is
>that Baha'u'llah uses very similar language in his Tablet of Visitation for
>Imam Husayn (reference not handy). In light of this, I ask how Juan can
>justify his statement that this passage "probably indicates Greek Christian
>influence on Baha'u'llah's thinking in Edirne"? Would this putative
>influence have transferred to Baha'u'llah's imamology?

Actually, I do not agree that the language in the Tablet of the Son and
that in the Tablet of Visitation for Imam Husayn is the same.  Both are
about martyrdoms, of course.  But the Visitation Tablet is much more a
traditional Shi`ite mourning text.  It does not speak of the martyrdom as
releasing civilizational energies.  Rather, it releases Gnostic knowledge,
esoteric gematria letter symbolism, mystical insight, cosmic grief, etc.
The passage about Jesus in the Tablet of the Son is much more about the
release of divine energies that infuse every aspect of human endeavor with
a new dynamism.  Obviously, a close study must be made and my suggestion is
at the moment a hypothesis, but I have read a fair amount of Eastern
Orthodox theology, and this passage seems to me redolent with its themes,
especially idea of Christ as pantocrator or ruler of the cosmos.  On the
other hand, I think we have discussed this matter before and I am glad to
admit that there is also something very nineteenth century about the
passage, almost Hegelian.  In Edirne, Baha'u'llah was at the center of
intersecting cultures--Shi`ite, Sufi, Eastern Orthodox, Ottoman modernist
and European modernist.  That he interacted with all of them (was
'influenced' by them) is banal in itself;  what is significant is the
highly original spiritual synergies he attained in this matrix.  After all,
there are not any other famous 19th century religious teachers resident in
Edirne, and they all were exposed to these 'influences.'  To deny that
Baha'u'llah met cultural constructs in Edirne that he had not in Tehran,
however, seems to me ahistorical.

In this section Baha'u'llah is still concerned with the Azalis' refusal to
accept him.

cheers   Juan


-------------

To: h-NET List for Bahai Studies
Sent: Tuesday, February 13, 2001 6:08 PM
Subject: Tablet of the Son, pt. 3




In this section of the Tablet, Baha'u'llah reaffirms that what appears
among the people with the advent of a new dispensation is *virtues*.  In
one sense these are the same virtues that appeared in previous religions.
But in another, they are distinct and new.  Even monotheism is renewed as a
concept with the advent of a new religion.

Baha'u'llah also affirms that his religion is a universal religion of
salvation through faith, not an elite religion of salvation through
mystical knowledge.  Mystical knowledge may bring self-fulfillment, but it
does not bring a greater station in the eyes of God:  "For instance, the
souls who have ascended to the peaks of mystical insight and those who
remained at the lowest rank have precisely the same station in the eyes of
God.  For the nobility of knowledge and insight is not dependent on these
attributes in themselves.  If they lead to the Eternal Truth and acceptance
of it, they are approved.  Otherwise, they are rejected.  On this plane,
all words are mentioned on the same level."  This egalitarianism contrasts
with the elitism of many Sufi orders, whose members thought of themselves
as superior by virtue of their mystical insight.

This egalitarianism extends to the way in which all the people and even all
created things share in the pleroma of the divine's self-manifestation to
the world.  Baha'u'llah says, "do not think that the manifestation of the
Eternal Truth is limited to causing outward knowledge to appear or altering
some well-established laws among the people.  Rather, at the time of
revelation all things become bearers of divine emanations and infinite
capabilities, and in accordance with the exigencies of the time and earthly
circumstances, these become manifest."  *Each* person, each thing gains
these "infinite capabilities" and becomes a bearer of "divine emanations."
These "emanations" are not the same as divine revelation, of course, which
is limited to the prophets; but nevertheless each believer in the new faith
does share share in this charisma.

cheers   Juan


--------------

To: H-NET List for Bahai Studies
Sent: Wednesday, February 14, 2001 5:22 PM
Subject: Re: Tablet of the Son, pt. 3



Dear Iskandar:

I am very grateful to you for presenting an alternative rendering of this
passage about God being born.  I have to admit that I remain a little
puzzled as to what in the world it could mean, exactly.  Your suggestion
that it is the manifestation of God who is claiming to be born and not God
himself is intriguing.  [ . . . Elsewhere], Baha'u'llah says that the
soldiers who executed the Bab "slew God," so if he can be "slain" in the
sense that his Manifestation is killed, I suppose he could be born in the
same sense.

I also wonder if it is related to another controversy Baha'u'llah mentions
in the tablet, of "elite" Shi`ites maintaining that the Twelfth Imam is
supernaturally alive in Occultation in mythical underground cities and
would return directly from there to the world as an adult.  He indicates
that common Shi`ites were perfectly willing to accept that in order to come
back, the Imam Mahdi would have to be born back into the world.  Perhaps
this is the issue of "God" being "born"?

The problem with reading ka-qawlihi as simply "as in his saying" in a
literal way is that the statement "God was born" is a direct contradiction
of the verse from the Surah of Tawhid.

In my attempt to render the passage, I was reading Baha'u'llah to say that
anything we assert about God is just words and does not really describe him
in any substantive way, and so we may as well say he was born as say he was
never born, since both assertions are wholly inadequate to the reality.
Obviously, it is a rough draft and needs more polishing and thought.

Your correction of the line about swerving at the end of the passage is
gratefully noted.

cheers   Juan


--------

From: Nima Hazini  
List Editor: Nima Hazini  
Editor's Subject: Tablet of the Son, part 4 
Author's Subject: Tablet of the Son, part 4 
Date Written: Sun, 4 Mar 2001 22:23:55 +1000 
Date Posted: Sun, 4 Mar 2001 22:23:55 +1000  


In the next portion of the Tablet of the Son, Baha'u'llah speaks of the
creative civilizational energies released by the crucifixion of Jesus.  He
also speaks of the apostacy and return to faith of Peter, and of his own
conviction that he was the symbolic return of Christ.

It seems astonishing to me that the whole of this Tablet hasn't been
rendered into English before.  My translation of the portions rendered by
Shoghi Effendi benefited from his lyrical style, but I have attempted to be
more literal and closer to the original text.

I would love to have reactions, whether philological or analytical.

cheers   Juan


---------

From: "Juan Cole, University of Michigan"  
Author's Subject: Tablet of the Son, part 4 
Date Written: Mon, 5 Mar 2001 07:13:34 -0500 
Date Posted: Mon, 5 Mar 2001 07:13:34 -0500  


Christopher asked:

>>Question: Your translation ["We
>>testify that by the word of God lepers were cleansed, the infirm were cured,
>>and the sick were healed. In truth, it is the purifier of the world."] makes
>>the Word the agent of purification. Is Jesus agentially intended (as
>>indicated in the GWB 36 trans.) Or is the agent of purification a principle,
>>i.e. the Word hypostasized?

My own reading is that Baha'u'llah is speaking of two frames here.  The
first is the moment of Jesus' crucifixion and its specific salvific
energies.  The second is the characteristics of the era of the advent of
the new Messenger of God in general.

Thus, I read him to switch to speaking of "the Word" as the agent of
purification & etc. when he includes the progressive present (innaha la
mutahhir).  The Word is the Logos, the eternal Messenger that takes
human form.

>>>From the context of this civilizational impetus that Christ's sacrifice
>>provides, is Baha'u'llah's own sacrificial dispensation of grace to be
>>understood as an intensification of this process, with no redundancy?

In Shi`ite esoteric notions of time, it is cyclical.  Thus, Baha'u'llah's
reenactment of the divine sacrifice (this time through the living
crucifixion of exile and persecution) starts off a new cycle.  (I have
argued, as well, that Baha'u'llah infused a 19th century sense of progress
into the esoteric time-cycle, producing an upward spiral or what Yeats
called a gyre.  Thus, Baha'u'llah's sacrifice and infusion of civilization
energy is a further turn of the gyre, taking it upward and outward farther
than his predecessors).  Baha'u'llah thus speaks of 'completing' what
Christ said (ja'a 'r-Ru:h. marratan ukhra: li-yatamma lakum ma qa:l)

I don't understand the concern with soteriology.  In Christianity,
soteriology is driven by the doctrine of original sin.  Christians also
imagine salvation as a sort of one-time game, in which you are on the
clock and you win or lose.  This issue just is not central to Islamicate
religions, which lack such a doctrine.  I've never met a Muslim or a
Baha'i who was worried if he or she was 'saved.'  The Bab even said that heaven
and hell are states of mind.  I see Baha'u'llah and `Abdu'l-Baha as
universalists in the technical sense of positing that everyone is in
some sense 'saved' insofar as they are moving toward God and insofar as God's
grace encompasses all.  The question is a relative one, of how *much*
paradise they experience.  It is possible to experience, even in this
life, a lot of paradise; or to experience very little.  From Baha'u'llah's
point of view, Messengers do not come to 'save' people (i.e. prevent them from
losing the game) but to give them the opportunity to acquire the divine
attributes and so become more God-like and to move nearer to God, which
is the meaning of paradise in his view.

For Baha'u'llah, even the crucifixion is not primarily about individual
'salvation,' (after all a somewhat selfish idea) and he never mentions
such a term in this passage.  It is about giving things 'talent',
'potential' or 'capacity' (isti`da:d), about promoting wisdom/philosophy, knowledge,
and arts and industry.  This is a *civilizational* salvation.  Even Christ's
healing is reinterpreted as the bestowal of mystical insight (`irfan).
There is something almost Hegelian about this view of the consequences
of the crucifixion.

cheers   Juan


---------

To: 
Sent: Monday, April 16, 2001 7:51 AM
Subject: H-Bahai Tablet of the Son, pt. 5



In this part of the Tablet, Baha'u'llah explicitly compares the Bab to John
the Baptist, offering a parallel from sacred history that would justify his
advent so soon after the Bab's own, something questioned by the Azalis.  He
urges his followers not to fear martyrdom.  And, it seems to me, he
deliberately paraphrases Jn 1:17-18.  Since he gives all this in Persian,
it may be that by this time he has access to a Persian translation of the
New Testament.

The whole Tablet seems to me to be Edirne period, though the embedded
passages from a letter to a priest in Istanbul are obviously earlier than
the rest of the text.

cheers   Juan

------

To: 
Sent: Sunday, May 06, 2001 5:45 PM
Subject: Tablet of the Son, penultimate part

In this next to the last section of Baha'u'llah's Tablet of the Son in my
presentation, three main points are made.  The first is that the Azali
Babis should recognize Baha'u'llah, and should understand that these matters 
are not contingent.  The second is that in the Baha'i dispensation, all believers
are wellsprings of the emanations of divine discourse.  The third is a
restatement that Baha'u'llah is to the Bab as John the Baptist was to Jesus.

It is the second of these points that struck me when I read it several
years ago.  I made some notes then, and promised myself to come back to a
full translation of the passage.  It seems to me quite remarkable.  We know
that some Baha'i intellectuals, such as Mirza Abu'l-Fadl Gulpaygani,
expressed themselves reluctant to write their own works while Baha'u'llah
was alive.  Presumably this was on the theory that the mouthpiece of God
was available to answer questions, and everyone else should remain silent.
We know that Baha'u'llah himself disagreed with this way of proceeding (as
well he might, since it deprived his religion of the intellectual support
of potential giants who might be able to communicate Baha'u'llah's ideas
effectively to their milieux).

Here in this passage I believe we have a glimpse of the explicit
underpinning of Baha'u'llah's command to Mirza Abu'l-Fadl and other Baha'is
to write their own works.  Baha'u'llah was convinced that the faith
community he raised up was itself a vehicle for the expression of the
divine meanings.  Each individual, he says, is a spring in which these well
up.  They should try to answer questions like why Baha'u'llah's advent
succeeded that of the Bab so quickly, *themselves.*  He explains,
"celestial gales have rendered all human beings-indeed, all things-bearers
of the divine emanations to the extent of their capacity" in this
dispensation.  Rather than supporting the view that all Baha'is should be
silent in the face of the bearer of divine revelation, he argues that on
the contrary all Baha'is had an absolute duty to become learned and to
author their own treatises on Baha'i theology and the whole range of
scholarship--to answer their own questions.  Of course, they needed to seek
their grounding in the writings of Baha'u'llah himself.  But assuming they
did so, their writings participated in the pleroma of divine inspiration
(fuyudat-i rabbaniyyih).

This sentiment strikes me as altogether remarkable in a Qajar Iranian
context.  There is none of the distinction here between khass va `amm
(elite and commoner).  The universality of the command to gain learning and
to write is breathtaking.  And, the recognition of such writing by all
faithful adherents as itself bearing the divine emanations sacralizes the
entirety of the Baha'i intellectual and spiritual enterprise.  There is no
sense here of any desire to censor or to silence, or any fear of the
inevitable diversity of views that would flow from such an outpouring of
commoner theology.  Rather, the prophet calls for the proliferation of
midrashes on the part of his flock, for them to answer their own questions
even while he is alive to answer them.  The implication,that if they are
clear-sighted, they have access to the divine meanings within themselves
and within scripture, is almost Transcendentalist.

Baha'u'llah clearly inspired the great nineteenth century Baha'i
writers--Mirza Abu'l-Fadl, Nabil-i Akbar Qa'ini, Mirza Husayn Hamadani,
Muhammad Nabli-i `Azam Zarandi, Ta'irih Tihrani, and many others.  That
still seems to me the generation that accomplished the most intellectually,
and we have Baha'u'llah's attitudes to thank for it.  By the Pahlevi period
it appears that the general traditionalist attitude was that writing about
the Faith was a sort of impudence that should be carefully controlled and
possibly discouraged.

cheers,   Juan Cole

-----------

To: 
Sent: Wednesday, May 09, 2001 4:56 PM
Subject: Tablet of the Son, last intallment

In the final passages of the Tablet of the Son, Baha'u'llah discusses
further his controversies with the Azali Babis.  In the first passage he seems to
refer to using a scribe to record his oral revelation.  One wonders if it
was `Abdu'l-Baha.

Baha'u'llah complains that Azal has asserted that whereas the production of
eloquent divine verses [of the sort Baha'u'llah produced] constituted a
valid proof of prophethood in the time of the Bab, this particular feat was
no longer probative later in the Babi dispensation.  I have not read enough
of Azal to know the details of this controversy, but it could be that Azal
was convinced that no new prophet could arise so soon, and if it was not
the right time for a prophet to appear then the production of
revelation-like verses was not in itself enough to establish prophethood.
There were after all many eloquent self-proclaimed prophets in Islamic
history long before the Bab, including the famed poet al-Mutanabbi (who
gave up his claims and turned to earning a nice living praising princes).
They couldn't from a Babi point of view have been prophets, because it
wasn't 1260/1844.  In the same way, Azal felt that no prophet was expected
in the 1280s/1860s, so the production of verses that sounded like the
Qur'an and the Bayan was irrelevant.

Baha'u'llah and his partisans felt the other way around.  The verses were
the primary proof, which dictacted chronology.  In one Tablet Baha'u'llah
says with some humor that he does not know if he is early or late, but he
is here.  And, he points to the Bayan itself as asserting the primacy of
the production of verses as proof of the advent of the one whom God would
make manifest.

Baha'u'llah asks the recipient to make an open-minded investigation of
these issues.  I read him to say (and I find this quite remarkable if I
understand it correctly) that even if a Babi looked at all the issues in a
fair-minded way and nevertheless decided for Azal, that God would be
pleased with him.  It wasn't the outcome that was crucial but the attitude
of fairness in weighing all the evidence and arguments.
(This point is relevant to Michael Sours' earlier thread about salvation).

Finally, toward the end of the Tablet, Baha'u'llah says something extremely
important.  He says, "The influence of [individual] souls is and always
will be beloved."  That sounds like individualism to me.  The term
"individual" is only implied in the original, which just gives souls.  But
it is clear that he is speaking of the individual and not of a group or a
community.  He adds, "For the influence of each soul [har nafsi] is its
fruit, and a soul without influence is considered a tree without fruit in
the most great realm."  That is, Baha'u'llah is explicitly saying that
individual endeavor is beloved, and that individual souls who do not exert
themselves to show forth their own particular talents and abilities
("fruits") are like a barren tree.

This passage ties in with the earlier one in which Baha'u'llah said that in
this dispensation every believer was the bearer of divine emanations.
There is nothing here about curbing individual contributions, about not
speaking until spoken to, about group consensus requiring individuals to be
quiescent so as to avoid rocking the boat.

Many historians are convinced that one secret of the economic and political
strength of the North Atlantic states for the past 500 years was the
emergence of a peculiar form of human identity, individualism.  I
personally think there is something to this insight.  If so, Baha'u'llah
was calling for individualism in the nineteenth-century Middle East, as an
antidote to the group-think that such forces as clan organization and
religious orthodoxy imposed on the individual.  And, of course, the
minority Baha'is could only hope to attract the majority Azalis in the
middle Edirne period if some Azalis were willing to break ranks and act as
individuals rather than submitting to consensus, group or family unity, and
blind imitation (taqlid) of Azal.  A certain amount of individualism was
key to the emergence of the early Baha'i community, and to the
proselytizing successes and intellectual accomplishments of the first
generation of Baha'is in Iran.

As I bring this discussion to a close, I wish to thank all those who have
commented on the translation and its implications, including Michael Sours,
Christopher Buck, Alison Marshall and Iskandar Hai.  Dr. Hai in particular
has been extremely helpful in identifying five or six phrases where my
tired (increasingly old) eyes betrayed me or where my knowledge of
Baha'u'llah's eloquent Qajar Persian style was wanting  . . .  

cheers   Juan





  • To Translation of Tablet of the Son

  • Return to H-Bahai Translation Page

  • Return to Index of H-Bahai Digital Publications

  • Return to H-Bahai Home Page

  • Links to pages with similar resources