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middle eastern literatures, poet, U.S.A.
Scripture as Literature: Sifting through the layers of the text
In the mid-14th Century A.D., the Italian poet Petrarch wrote of his courtly love for Laura (from Sonnet #47):
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'ànno
Every English-speaking Bahá'í child will find these lines of Petrarch, once rendered into English, have a remarkably familiar ring:
Blessed is the spot, and the house,
and the place, and the city,
and the heart, and the mountain,
and the refuge, and the cave,
and the valley, and the land,
and the sea, and the island,
and the meadow where mention
of God hath been made,
and His praise glorified
This uncanny resemblance is in all likelihood a mere coincidence, but it highlights the essential poetic or literary quality of the prayers, letters, treatises and books written by Mirzâ Husayn-`Alî Nûrî (1817-92), known to history as Bahá’u’lláh. Bahá'ís, of course, believe that Baha’u’lláh was a Manifestation (zuhûr), or major prophet, of God and that the corpus of his writings constitute a Revelation (wahy) from God. Among the community of his followers, this speech is endowed with supernatural qualities and therefore enjoys sacred status as scripture. Nevertheless, there is the recognition that the Manifestation must pour divine truth into a particular form, shaped by the vessel of language in which it is contained, which in the case of Bahá’u’lláh's scripture happens to be Arabic and Persian. This paper will attempt to uncover some of the particular literary models which Bahá’u’lláh has chosen as the frame of expression for his revelation or scripture.
Scripture versus literature
Christians have worried for several 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 replied:
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, the doctrine of the inimitability of the Koran (i`jâz al-Qur'ân), began to take shape in the 10th century A.D., with Arab theologians and rhetoricians holding to the notion that the Koran itself was a miracle, either because of its contents or because God prevented Muhammad's contemporaries from composing a stylistically similar work. Indeed, the word âyat, or verse of scripture, is the same word as that used for a divine sign or miracle. The Koran came to be seen as an uncreated work, the exact words of which were recorded in a heavenly tablet (lawh mahf z), 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 Koran itself, but it seems clear that Muhammad himself recognized the roots of his rhyming prose style (saj`) in the prognostications of sooth-sayers (kâhin, kuhhân) and the considerable body of stories about Moses, Abraham, Jesus and the other Semitic prophets from Biblical and Midrashic sources and from Arab folklore. The particular form and expression of the truths of the Koran, therefore, is indebted to the literary milieu in which it was revealed, though Muhammad frequently points out that the revelation of the Koran is not to be confused with the mere speech of poets, soothsayers and storytellers.
In the Bahá'í context, we do not find exact parallel to the doctrine of the inimitablity of the Koran...
Excerpt from Arts Dialogue, February 2000, pages 18 - 21
Bahá’u’lláh’s Writ and its literary matrix.
It is not surprising that the motifs and stylistics of scripture would find their way into Bahá’u’lláh’s writings; after all, he sees his writings as a new chapter in the book of scripture. Perhaps somewhat less expected, though, are quotations from the works of poets, mystics and philosophers which punctuate Bahá’u’lláh's writings, in typical epistolary style, especially in the early period of 1853-1863. Unlike Muhammad, revelation seems to have come at will to Bahá’u’lláh; even though his revelations, considered as divinely revealed or sent down (manzul), apparently differed from normal speech or thought, some passages speak in the voice of God and others in Bahá’u’lláh's own voice. Nevertheless, all are accorded the status of revelation, even those texts dating to the period before Bahá’u’lláh's public claim to be a Manifestation.
The earliest text in Bahá’u’lláh's corpus seems to be a nineteen-line Persian poem in the Sufi tradition entitled Rashh-e `amâ (Sprinklings from the Cloud of Unknowing) dating to 1269/1852-3, which contains the refrain (radif) "it pours from us" (-e mâ mi-rizad), as in the opening line:
From our rapture the sprinkles of the cloud of unknowing trickle down
(Note: See for the text and an excellent annotated translation, Stephen Lambden’s An Early Poem of Mira Husayn ‘Ali Bahá’u’lláh, Bahá'í Studies Bulletin 3.2 (Sept 1984):4ff.)
Persian poets prior to Bahá’u’lláh, from the Safavid period onward, had used this refrain, as in the last line of the following poem by Sâ'eb (1607-1675):
There will be a bloody fight on the day of Judgement, Sâ'eb
over the color of every rose that fades under our gaze
(Note: Kolliât-e Sâ'eb, ed. Adibi Tehrani (Tehran, 1362/1983) 393.)
A 217-line poem in Arabic, complete with auto-commentary bearing the Persian title Qa ide-ye varqâ'iye (The Dove Ode) was written between 1270-1272/1854-6 for a certain Shaykh Ismâ'íl, the head of the Khalidiya branch of the Naqshbandi Sufis, who had made Bahá’u’lláh's acquiantance in the mountains of Iraqi Kurdistan
(Note: See Juan R.Cole, Bahá’u’lláh and the Naqshbandi Sufis in Iraq, 1854-1856, in Juan Cole and Moojan Momen, eds. From Iran East and West (Los Angeles, Kalimat Press, 1984)1-28.)
, and, being impressed with his piety and knowledge, requested him to write a qasîda in imitation of the famous "Tâ'îyat al-kubrâ," or Magnificent Ode rhyming in "Ti," by Ibn al-Fârid (576-632/1181-1235), composed 600 years earlier.
(Note: Compare the translation of Ibn al-Fârid offered by Reynold Nicholson, Studies in Islamic Mysticism (Cambridge University Press, 1921), 199-266, to the translation and exchange over Bahá’u’lláh's poem in the Bahá'í Studies Bulletin, v. 2, no. 2-4 (Dec 1983 and March 1984). For further information on Ibn al-Fârid, see Th. Emil Homerin, From Arab Poet to Muslim Saint (Columbia: University of South Carolina, 1994).)
In such poems, Bahá’u’lláh incorporates Bábi theology and a measured Sufi vocabulary which steers away from the monism or pantheism of both wahdat al-shuhûd and wahdat al-wujûd ("oneness of Being and Manifestation") varieties without making a contentious doctrinal issue of it...
(Note: These doctrines are mentioned by name in Bahá’u’lláh's Haft vadi in Âsâr-e qalam-e a ‘lâ, v. 3, (Tehran?: Mo’assese-ye melli-ye matbu-ât-e amir, 121 BE/1964) 133. In the seventh and final valley of Absolute Poverty and Ture Nothingness (faqr-e haqiqi van fanâ-ye asli) the sekker passes beyond the belief in these two views of reality. For the English, see The Seven Valleys and the Four Valleys, trans. Marzieh Gail and Ali-Kuli Khan (Wilmette: Bahá'í Publishing Trust, 1945 [revisted edition, 1975]) 39.)
Throughout their ministries, Bahá’u’lláh, ‘Abdul-Bahá and also Shoghi Effendi wrote a great number of personal confessional prayers (monâjât), a genre of Persian prose canonized by the eleventh century Sufi of Herat, `Abd Allâh An âri (1006-1088 A.D.). In some Bahá'í monâjât (also called do`â, as opposed to obligatory prayers, or namâz) the echoes of quotations or near-quotations from earlier Islamic prayers or poems can occasionally be heard, for example, in the prayer-like tablet of ‘Abdul-Bahá beginning "Ay jân feshân-e yâr-e bi-neshân," (Note: I do not recall seeing the text of this tablet in a printed work, but it circulates hand-to-hand among Iranian Bahá'í in personal lectionaries, copied down from friends and/or in Bahá'í classes.)
which quotes a line of verse from the famous 13th century poet of Shiraz, Sa`di:
who but glean the fields of love
of Layli's secret
who scorches his whole harvest
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 a single sentence from Juliet to Romeo-- "Swear not by the moon, th'inconstant moon," let's say--would conjure up the important scences of Shakespeare's play for an English audience...
Excerpts with revisions from an article printed in: The Bahá'í Studies Review volume 7 (1997).
Excerpt from Arts Dialogue, June 2000, page 23.
Likewise, in the Lawh-e Ra'is, where Bahá'u'lláh describes a puppet show 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 Oshtor-nâme, traditionally attributed to the famous Farid al-Din `Attâr (d. 618/1221),1 who describes a Turkish puppet player folding all the puppets into the box of tawhid, or Divine unity, after the performance.
Also from the Lawh-e Ra'is is this quotation from the poet Sanâ'i (d. 525/1131):
"The sage Sanâ'i has said:
Take counsel, all you more blackened than counseled!
Take counsel, o you whose beards begin to whiten!
According to the modern edition of his collected poems (Divân), the second hemistich of this poem is somewhat incorrectly quoted in Seven Valleys (`ozr ârid "seek forgiveness" is given rather than pand girid "take counsel," though it has little change on the overall import of the verse).2 Sanâ'i was received as a mystic and homiletic poet by the later literary tradition,
though he also wrote much profane poetry, as well...
....Perhaps the most interesting work of Bahá'u'lláh, at least insofar as genre studies are concerned, is his
Hidden Words (Kalemât-e maknune), a work of rhymed prose composed/revealed in 1274/1858 while Bahá'u'lláh was in
Baghdad. Though conceived as an organic unity, Kalemât-e maknune consists of short independent ethical and
mystical counsels, 71 in Arabic and 83 in Persian. This book was originally known by the Bábís among
whom it circulated in manuscript form as the Sahife-ye Fâtemiye (The Book of Fatima), thus identifying it with the
Twelver Shi`i tradition of the moshaf Fâteme (scroll of Fatima), a series of inspiring thoughts supposedly
whispered into the ear of Fatima by an angel to console her upon the death of her father -the Prophet Muhammad.
The scroll of Fatima was believed to be handed down by the Imams from generation to generation 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."...
Excerpts with revisions from an article printed in Bahá'í Studies Review volume 7, to be found at:
Excerpts from Arts Dialogue, October 2000, page 20.
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- Article: Scripture as Literature: Sifting through the layers..., part 4, Arts Dialogue, February 2001
- Article: Scripture as Literature: Sifting through the layers..., part three, Arts Dialogue, October 2000
- Article: Scripture as Literature: Sifting through the layers..., part two, Arts Dialogue, June 2000
- Article: Scripture as Literature: Sifting through the layers..., part one, Arts Dialogue, February 2000
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