Meditations

The Kawthar of Divine Knowledge

by Alison Marshall


In praise of God, the bestower of guidance and grace

"'The most grievous of all veils is the veil of knowledge.'
Upon its ashes, We have reared the tabernacle of divine knowledge."
Baha'u'llah: The Book of Certitude



Table of Contents




"Having learned wisdom from a thousand books, they became great scholars

They cannot learn one letter of love - the wretches wander in ignorance

If a lover glances just once, he can swim a hundred million rivers.

If the scholar looks a hundred million times, he cannot reach the other bank.

Between learning and love is an arduous journey, with many miles of distance.

Whoever does not gain love, Bahu, is a loser in both worlds."

Sultan Bahu2


Introduction

Do you wonder if there is a place where all your dreams come true? Do you despair of reaching it?

I'm writing to tell you that there is such a place. Most people seek it in the physical world. But it isn't there. It's inside us. It's an inner spiritual reality, which we find only if we give up looking for it in the world.

Baha'u'llah calls that spiritual reality the City of Certitude. It is where we drink from the Kawthar of divine knowledge.3

This commentary is a map of how to get there. I'll be honest; the road is very difficult indeed. On the way, we are tested to such an extent that we experience inner 'death'. Everything we once believed turns out to be illusion. But on the other side of that despair and confusion is home, and when you reach it, you realise that you sacrificed nothing except the thing that imprisoned you.

The ecstasy of this new knowledge and freedom makes you want to scream. You want to tell the world what you have found. You want to tell everyone to look up from their lives and see this glorious city, which is inside them and will set them free.

You want them to know that what Baha'u'llah says is true! "Could ye apprehend with what wonders of My munificence and bounty I have willed to entrust your souls, ye would, of a truth, rid yourselves of attachment to all created things, and would gain a true knowledge of your own selves - a knowledge which is the same as the comprehension of Mine own Being."4

I have written this commentary in the hope that someone will listen to my scream and decide to walk the difficult path of detachment. God bless them and may they find their home in the City of Certitude and everlastingly drink the Kawthar of divine knowledge.

Definition of divine knowledge

In chapter three of Some Answered Questions,5 'Abdu'l-Baha discusses the role of the manifestation as an educator for humanity. As part of this discussion, he divides education into three categories, arguing that the manifestation must be an educator in all three. The three categories he creates are: material, human and divine education.

He defines these in the following way:

  • Material education is "concerned with the progress and development of the body, through gaining its sustenance, its material comfort and ease". Both humans and animals concern themselves with these things.

  • Human education is concerned with "civilization and progress". It takes in "government, administration, charitable works, trades, arts and handicrafts, sciences, great inventions and discoveries and elaborate institutions". These activities, he explains, distinguish humans from animals.
  • Divine education is education about the Kingdom of God. Through divine education, humans acquire perfections, attract the blessings of the Holy Spirit and realise the truth of the verse that humans are made in the image of God. 'Abdu'l-Baha describes divine education as "true education" and the "goal of the world of humanity".

The subject of this commentary is the third category of education and its subject matter, the Kingdom of God. I will examine how we gain a divine education, what divine knowledge is and what it means for us.

I want to emphasise the difference between the subject matter of material education and human education on the one hand and that of divine education on the other. The difference is that divine education concerns itself with the manifold aspects of spiritual reality - our divine nature, the spiritual worlds, the reality of God - whereas human and material education are concerned with the manifold aspects of our lives in this physical world. It is easy to get them mixed up because they are interrelated. We are spiritual beings living in a physical world and, as such, our human affairs have a spiritual dimension. Nevertheless, this commentary is not about human affairs in this world. It is solely about the Kingdom of God. It takes in subjects such as our divine nature, the spiritual worlds, the Holy Spirit, spiritual perfections and everlasting life.

One potential source of confusion is the Baha'i administration. Baha'is think of the administration as being 'divine' because its structure was designed by Baha'u'llah and 'Abdu'l-Baha, and it is governed by spiritual principle. Even though these things are true, the administration was created to manage the affairs of the Baha'i community in this world. This makes it part of the subject matter of human education: "government, administration, charitable works … and elaborate institutions".

Personal knowledge of God

Now that I have defined what I mean by divine knowledge, I want to discuss how we learn it. In chapter 83 of Some Answered Questions 'Abdu'l-Baha outlines four methods of knowing. (SAQ:297-9) These are: using the senses, using reason, reading scripture, and through the bounty of the Holy Spirit. Below is a table of these four methods with short summaries of what 'Abdu'l-Baha says about them:

1

the senses

methods 1, 2 and 3 are under the control of humans and are imperfect

2

reason

3

scripture

4

the bounty of the Holy Spirit

method 4 comes through the help of the Holy Spirit and is perfect

'Abdu'l-Baha explains that the first three methods are all under the control of humans, whereas the fourth comes to us "through the help of the Holy Spirit". The first three methods are imperfect. We cannot rely on our senses, our reason or our interpretation of scripture to deliver perfect knowledge. Reason is imperfect because different people come to different conclusions using reason, and appealing to scripture is also imperfect because the scriptures are understood using reason. By contrast, 'Abdu'l-Baha says that the bounty of the Holy Spirit "gives the true method of comprehension". It is the only method that leads to perfect knowledge.

In this commentary, I will be discussing two ways of gaining divine knowledge. The first one incorporates methods 1, 2 and 3 above and the second one is method 4. I will call the first one 'learning'. It uses the senses, the mind, scripture, reason and logic to gain an intellectual understanding of divine knowledge. It is under the control of humans. I will call the second one 'worship'. It attracts the bounties of the Holy Spirit, which bestow the knowledge on us. Baha'u'llah teaches us that we can attract the divine bounties by following the spiritual disciplines he has outlined for us; for example, reading the writings with reverence every morning and evening, praying with a sincere heart, fasting, struggling through our spiritual tests, increasing our knowledge of the faith, serving the Cause, virtuous deeds and work. These activities attract the divine bounties and result in our being given divine knowledge; for example: "Fear ye God; God will teach you." (I:69) I will add my two categories of knowing divine knowledge to the table:

1

the senses

methods 1, 2 and 3 are under the control of humans and are imperfect

learning

2

reason

3

scripture

4

the bounty of the Holy Spirit

method 4 comes through the help of the Holy Spirit and is perfect

worship

The distinction between learning and worship is reflected in the distinction between human education and divine education. The learning method is particularly suited to learning about the world. It uses the senses, reasoning and research to understand the world, and needs to be under human control. In contrast, the worship method is particularly suited to learning about invisible spiritual realities. These are not subject to the world's limitations, such as time, space and reason. Therefore, we can't learn about them using the learning method: "How can feeble reason encompass the Qur'an, Or the spider snare a phoenix in his web?"6 We have to use another method that gets around these limitations. The worship method does this by bestowing knowledge of the spiritual realities on us. "[The divine] mysteries [are] unravelled, not by the aid of acquired learning, but solely through the assistance of God and the outpourings of His grace." (I:192) Let's add the three categories of education to the table:

1

the senses

under the control of humans and imperfect

learning

material education

human education

2

reason

3

scripture

4

the bounty of the Holy Spirit

under the control of the Holy Spirit and perfect

worship

divine education

Because worship has the special purpose of teaching us about the spiritual realities, it gives us a knowledge about God that the learning method cannot teach. That knowledge has to do with directly accessing those realities through experiencing them first-hand. I'll illustrate this using a couple of examples. In the Second Introduction of The Baha'i Proofs, Mirza Abu'l-Fadl draws a distinction between "knowledge of the existence of God" and "knowledge of God". 7 I think this distinction illustrates the difference between the kind of knowledge we get from learning and the kind of knowledge we get from worship. I'll add these categories to the table:

1

the senses

under the control of humans and imperfect

learning

knowledge of the existence of God and God's qualities

2

reason

3

scripture

4

the bounty of the Holy Spirit

under the control of the Holy Spirit and perfect

worship

knowledge of God; that is, the reality of God

Let's look at Abu'l-Fadl's distinction. Abu'l-Fadl says that people use reason and scripture to prove that God exists and has divine qualities, such as the fact that God is One. But, says Abu'l-Fadl, these proofs are limited in what they can achieve. What they do not give us is knowledge of God; that is, a direct knowledge of God as a being or reality. Abu'l-Fadl illustrates the difference using the analogy of a man who knows there is such a thing as a ruby but cannot recognise a ruby stone.

"A man who has the knowledge of the existence of God and not that of God resembles a man who knows and believes in the existence of a precious stone called ruby, but who does not know the ruby itself, nor can he distinguish between it and other stones. Such a man is frequently cheated; and buys a base and worthless stone or colored glass instead of ruby. But a man who has the knowledge of God is like one who knows the ruby with real knowledge of its qualities, and distinguishes between it and other stones with due discrimination." 8

Abu'l-Fadl's point, then, is that we can know of the existence of something and its qualities. But it is another thing to know the thing itself.

The 13th-century mystic al-Ghazzali has left another good example of the difference between the two kinds of knowledge. The distinction was important to him because he began as an intellectual in his early career and later underwent a transformation when he discovered mysticism. He uses the example of drunkenness. Research, study and reason give us knowledge about the phenomenon of drunkenness and its effects, but does not teach us what it is like to be drunk:

"How great is the difference between knowing the definition, causes, and conditions of drunkenness and actually being drunk! The drunken man knows nothing about the definition and theory of drunkenness, but he is drunk; while the sober man, knowing the definition and the principles of drunkenness, is not drunk at all."9

I'll add al-Ghazzali's distinction to the table:

1

the senses

under the control of humans and imperfect

learning

knowledge of the existence of God and God's qualities

I know about drunkenness; I know about God

2

reason

3

scripture

4

the bounty of the Holy Spirit

under the control of the Holy Spirit and perfect

worship

knowledge of God; that is, the reality of God

I know drunkenness; I know God

These examples show that worship teaches us the kind of knowledge we get from personal experience. For example, if you said "I know my mother", you would be saying that you have had first-hand experience of her person. It's the same idea here. You say "I know God" because you have had personal experience of the reality of God (through Baha'u'llah).

The reason worship leads to this intimate knowledge of God is because the worship process takes place through the self. The learning process uses the senses and the mind and leads to an intellectual understanding of God, but does not necessarily affect the whole self. In worship, the Holy Spirit reveals itself to us through our spirits, souls, hearts, minds and senses - in short, all of our faculties. When we experience its effect in us, we are moved at a very deep level and we awaken to divine knowledge. The purpose of the spiritual disciplines is to train our self so that it can have these experiences. They prepare our self for the divine bounties to operate within us. The result is that our character strengthens, our shortcomings drop away, our vain imaginings and idle fancies dissolve and our insight into divine knowledge increases. Let's add the learning and worship processes to the table:

1

the senses

under the control of humans and imperfect

learning

uses mostly the senses and the mind, but may involve other faculties as well

2

reason

3

scripture

4

the bounty of the Holy Spirit

under the control of the Holy Spirit and perfect

worship

moves and changes the whole self; that is, the soul, spirit, heart, mind, senses and character

In the following quote, Baha'u'llah makes it clear that, in order to understand his revelation, what we need most of all is a pure self. Whether we have gained some kind of human learning isn't what matters: "The understanding of His words and the comprehension of the utterances of the Birds of Heaven are in no wise dependent on human learning. They depend solely upon purity of heart, chastity of soul, and freedom of spirit." (I:211) If you think about it, this makes sense. Not everyone will have the intellectual capacity or opportunity to study divine knowledge. But everyone is required to worship God, acquire perfections and become spiritually ready to meet God. This is the purpose of our creation.

Divine knowledge is hidden

By now, it should be coming clear that when I talk about divine knowledge, I am not referring to knowledge about the physical world. I am referring to knowledge about spiritual realities. The subject matter of this knowledge is therefore difficult to access because it is invisible. For example, if we were to meet Baha'u'llah or look at a picture of him, this would not tell us that he is a manifestation of God. Many people met Baha'u'llah and thought that he was no different to themselves. Another example would be the fact that Baha'u'llah has ushered in the Day of God and made a new creation. Very few people know what these spiritual realities are.

Because the spiritual realities are invisible, we depend on the manifestations to teach us about them and what they mean for us. But how do you teach someone about realities that are invisible? In the Kitab-i-Iqan, Baha'u'llah explains that the manifestations use two languages to do this. The first language is one that everyone can understand. We use it to 'learn' divine knowledge. It teaches us about the faith and how to grow spiritually. Baha'u'llah describes it as a "guiding lamp and a beaconing light whereby wayfarers may attain the heights of holiness". (I:254-5)

The second language is quite different. It is "veiled and concealed" and not something that everyone can understand. It uses "allusions" to refer to the spiritual realities. An allusion is a hidden reference to something. A common example of an allusion is a metaphor, which is a thing that refers to another thing. When Baha'u'llah refers to his laws as "the choice Wine",10 he is using a metaphor. Physical wine intoxicates us and makes us drunk. Baha'u'llah is saying that his laws are a celestial wine that has an intoxicating effect too.

Let's add the two languages to the table:

1

the senses

under the control of humans and imperfect

learning

uses mostly the senses and the mind

first language: "a guiding lamp" - uses clear language

2

reason

3

scripture

4

the bounty of the Holy Spirit

under the control of the Holy Spirit and perfect

worship

moves and changes the whole self

second language: "veiled and concealed" - uses allusions

Some of the believers in Baha'u'llah's time were confused by the way Baha'u'llah used the word 'wine'. 11 They didn't understand that the word was an allusion. They interpreted it from the point of view of the first language, taking the obvious meaning and figuring Baha'u'llah meant that. This shows how easy it is to be fooled. The allusions use a common image to refer to the spiritual realities. If we take that image at face value, we will miss the hidden reference. To penetrate the allusion, we have to use the worship process, which means making the effort to open our hearts and experience the realities within our self. For example, the early believers needed to go past the idea of physical wine and experience Baha'u'llah's celestial wine in their self.

This is the reason the second language is veiled and concealed. It is designed to test us spiritually. Baha'u'llah describes it as the divine touchstone, which measures the condition of our heart. He explains that, in order to understand the allusions, we must have a heart that is ready to receive them: "None apprehendeth the meaning of these utterances except them whose hearts are assured." If we do not have a pure heart, we do not understand the allusions, and when we say what we think they mean, we immediately reveal what is in our hearts: "The other language is veiled and concealed, so that whatever lieth hidden in the heart of the malevolent may be made manifest and their innermost being be disclosed." In this way, God tests how genuine our heart is and passes judgement on us at the same time.

Here's an example of that process at work. In the Kitab-i-Iqan, Baha'u'llah reports a conversation he had with a divine about the meaning of the tradition "Fasting is illumination, prayer is light." The divine said the tradition meant that because fasting increased the heat of the body, it was likened to the sun and because prayer at night refreshes us, it was likened to the moon. By making these statements, he was revealing the extent to which he had grasped the spiritual meaning of those allusions. Then comes Baha'u'llah's judgement, which shows that the man was way off the mark: "Thereupon We realized that that poor man had not been favoured with a single drop of the ocean of true understanding, and had strayed far from the burning Bush of divine wisdom." (I:39-40)

We are also tested by the fact that the spiritual worlds are invisible. Think, for instance, about why God has set things up this way. The spiritual realities can never be seen by the physical eye: "Never shall mortal eye recognize the everlasting beauty." The invisibility of spiritual reality is a huge test for people. How many people deny these realities as a result of this! If things were set up so that people could see the spiritual worlds with their eyes, everyone would believe.12 But there would be no profit in that. Instead, God hides the spiritual realities so that they can be seen only by those with pure hearts.

Detaching from the world

The discussion so far has revealed the fundamental importance of the worship process in learning divine knowledge. It prepares the self - for example, by purifying the heart - to experience the Holy Spirit first-hand so that we can penetrate the allusions and gain insight into the spiritual realities. The next two sections will explore in more detail what is involved in this preparation process. I will tackle the subject by discussing two concepts, which are in one sense different, but in another, the same. The first one is detaching from the world and the second one is purifying the self.

The first concept is detachment from the world. If you think about it, it makes sense that if we want to gain knowledge of spiritual realities, the first thing we should do is turn our attention to them and away from the reality of this world. Baha'u'llah makes this point in the following Hidden Word: "Close one eye and open the other. Close one to the world and all that is therein, and open the other to the hallowed beauty of the beloved." (PHW:12) This is the simple logic behind the concept of detaching from the world. The principle applies everywhere: if you want to learn about a thing, you have to give it your undivided attention. When we love someone, we do this naturally. We find ourselves thinking about the person all the time and become absent-minded about other things. Baha'u'llah makes this point in the oft-quoted Hidden Word: "Wither can a lover go but to the land of his beloved?" (PHW:4)

It makes sense then, that if we want to learn about divine knowledge, we must turn our attention to it and away from worldly distractions. I'll quote from the Kitab-i-Iqan to back up my point. You don't have to look far into the book to find passages that state this idea. In fact, Baha'u'llah opens the Kitab-i-Iqan with a verse from the Bab that makes the point explicitly: "No man shall attain the shores of the ocean of true understanding except he be detached from all that is in heaven and on earth." It is no happenstance that Baha'u'llah's book about certitude should open with this statement. Baha'u'llah follows the quote with his own restatement and interpretation of it: "The essence of these words is this: they that tread the path of faith, they that thirst for the wine of certitude, must cleanse themselves of all that is earthly." (I:3) There are other clear iterations of the point throughout the Kitab-i-Iqan, but I think the above passages are sufficient to establish my point. (I:70 and 192-3)

Having established that we must detach from the world in order to attain divine knowledge, the next question is: what does detaching from the world mean? This is a complex issue, therefore, I'll only touch on the topic by examining Baha'u'llah's definitions of 'the world' and 'detachment'.

Baha'u'llah defines 'the world' in the following way:

"Know ye that by 'the world' is meant your unawareness of Him Who is your Maker, and your absorption in aught else but Him… Whatsoever deterreth you, in this Day, from loving God is nothing but the world." (G:CXXVIII,276)

In this passage, Baha'u'llah defines 'the world' in two ways:

  1. A state of mind in which we are unaware of God and absorbed in something else.
  2. A thing that inclines us away from loving God.

There is another definition of 'the world' in Epistle to the Son of the Wolf. It says:

"Say: By the world is meant that which turneth you aside from Him Who is the Dawning-Place of Revelation, and inclineth you unto that which is unprofitable unto you. Verily, the thing that deterreth you, in this day, from God is worldliness in its essence." 13

This definition is the same as the first one, only put in slightly different terms. Here, Baha'u'llah says 'the world' is a thing that turns us away from God toward what isn't profitable.

The first thing to note is that Baha'u'llah does not say 'the world' is the same thing as the physical world. Instead, it is anything, of whatever nature, that interferes with our close association with God. This means that 'the world' should be thought of as an impediment to a relationship. That impediment can take any form; for example, as the definition shows, it can be a state of mind or a thing. It might be the physical world or the physical reality, or even something in heaven.

However, that does leave a question mark over why this impediment should be called 'the world'. When we are born, we are submerged in the reality of the physical world and it provides the context for our lives. In the play As You Like It, Shakespeare described the world as a stage. "All the world's a stage; And all the men and women merely players", he said, meaning that we are all actors playing out our lives on the stage of reality. In a similar vein, Baha'u'llah called it a show: "The world is but a show, vain and empty, a mere nothing, bearing the semblance of reality." (G:CLIII,328) Today, we might liken it to a computer game. We are the people in the game, which appears to our senses as reality. We define ourselves, and determine every aspect of our lives, in accordance with it. We are submerged in it and spend our whole lives absorbed in it and its affairs. Immersed in this state, we are unaware of God and the invisible spiritual realities.

In the Lawh-i Ra'is, 14 Baha'u'llah tells a story illustrating how we are absorbed in the world. When he was a child, he attended the celebrations of this brother's wedding. These included a puppet show called "Shah Sultan Salim". Baha'u'llah describes the characters in the play: citizens, courtiers, footmen, executioners, ministers, princes, dignitaries and the king. During the play, a thief is beheaded and an uprising is quelled. Twenty minutes after the show, Baha'u'llah saw the puppeteer appear, carrying a box. Baha'u'llah tells us he asked the puppeteer what was in the box and he told him that all the characters in the play were in there, including their "pomp and glory" and "might and power". Baha'u'llah then exclaims: "I swear by My Lord…Ever since that day, all the trappings of the world have seemed in the eyes of this Youth akin to that same spectacle."

You see, each of us will die one day. When that happens, the story of our lives, the things we possessed, our worldly concerns - in short, the whole of our physical reality - will go into the grave with us, in the same way that the royal spectacle was folded up in the puppeteer's box. For this reason, the world and its affairs are akin to a play - for a short time, they reveal a story with a set of characters, circumstances and a drama - but then it comes to an end and disappears as though it had never existed. This play is what Baha'u'llah is calling 'the world'. It is an impediment because we are completely absorbed in it and this prevents us from knowing God.

If that is the meaning of 'the world', it follows that the meaning of detaching from the world must be the ability to see the ephemeral nature of physical reality and pull our self out of our absorption in it. Let's look at Baha'u'llah's definition of 'detachment'. It is found in his Commentary on 'He who knows his self knows his Lord'. As expected, he explains that detachment refers to the detaching of the soul from all except God. A detached soul 'soars up' to God and arrives at a spiritual station where nothing between heaven and earth stands between it and God. That soul is not immersed in anything except loving God and mentioning him:

"Thou hast inquired about detachment. It is well known to thee that by detachment is intended the detachment of the soul from all else but God. That is, it consisteth in soaring up to an eternal station, wherein nothing that can be seen between heaven and earth deterreth the seeker from the Absolute Truth. In other words, he is not veiled from divine love or from busying himself with the mention of God by the love of any other thing or by his immersion therein."15

The martyrs are a perfect example of detachment from the world. They were completely absorbed in God and blind to the world. Their contemporaries, who were immersed in the world, hated them and thought they were crazy for acting against reason and the accepted values of society. But the martyrs had awakened, within themselves, to the spiritual realities beyond what their contemporaries could see. By focusing entirely on them, to the exclusion of everything earthly, they were able to withstand anything their enemies threw at them. Baha'u'llah gives a description of this transformation process in the Kitab-i-Iqan. You can see that the believers are inspired to forget everything that once made up their lives:

"Of him it could be truly said that he was reborn and revived, inasmuch as previous to his belief in God and his acceptance of His Manifestation, he had set his affections on the things of the world, such as attachment to earthly goods, to wife, children, food, drink, and … to the traditions of his forefathers…

These same people, … as soon as they drank the immortal draught of faith … were so transformed that they would renounce for His sake their kindred, their substance, their lives, their beliefs, yea, all else save God! So overpowering was their yearning for God, so uplifting their transports of ecstatic delight, that the world and all that is therein faded before their eyes into nothingness." (I:154-5)

Perfecting the self

The second concept related to preparing the self for divine knowledge is perfecting the self. I'll begin by answering the questions: what is the self and how does it work?

In chapter 36 of Some Answered Questions, 'Abdu'l-Baha outlines five divisions of spirit (SAQ:143-5). They are referred to as "divisions" because, in reality, spirit is one. There aren't five different and separate spirits; it is more that 'Abdu'l-Baha has identified five aspects of spirit for the sake of our understanding. The five divisions of spirit are:

  1. vegetable spirit
  2. animal spirit
  3. human spirit or soul
  4. heavenly spirit or spirit of faith
  5. Holy Spirit.

The first two spirits - the vegetable spirit and the animal spirit - have many effects; for example, the vegetable spirit causes growth and also the force of electricity, and the animal spirit results in the functioning of the senses. The third spirit is the human spirit or soul. It has the power of discovery. Its relationship to the body is like that of the sun to a mirror. The fourth spirit is the heavenly spirit or spirit of faith. It is a bounty of the Holy Spirit. We will discuss its effects later on in this section. The last spirit, the Holy Spirit, is the Reality of the manifestation. It stands between God and creation and is like a mirror that reflects the light of God to creation.

Baha'u'llah tells us quite a bit about how our soul works. He describes it as a central faculty, which stands behind our experience and accounts for our sense of self. (G:LXXXIII,163) This faculty manifests itself through different instruments, such as our sight, hearing, heart and mind. When the human spirit is directed towards these faculties, it takes on different forms and performs different functions. The light of the sun, for example, takes on different appearances when it shines on a mirror or a crystal or through glass. Although the soul is not the same thing as the instruments, yet, in another sense, they are 'one'. 'Abdu'l-Baha explains that mind is essential to spirit in the same way that the sun's rays are essential to the sun. (SAQ:209) The sun is not the same thing as its rays and yet, you cannot separate them because the sun operates through its rays. Similarly, the spirit is not the same thing as its instruments and yet, you cannot separate them because it operates through those instruments. 16 We can conclude, then, that the self is the human spirit or soul and its effects in the instruments.

Let's look now at how it is perfected. The self can be turned to any purpose, good or bad. There isn't a good spirit and a bad spirit. There is only one spirit, which can be directed either way. 'Abdu'l-Baha says, for example, that the human spirit "is capable of the utmost perfection, or it is capable of the utmost imperfection". (SAQ:144) Most people appreciate that they have a fundamental choice between good and evil, and go about their lives doing good where they can. But is this what 'Abdu'l-Baha means when he speaks of human perfection? If it only meant doing good, what would it matter if we didn't believe in Baha'u'llah? The opening paragraph of the Kitab-i-Aqdas makes it clear that even if you are "the author of every righteous deed" you have gone astray if you have not recognised the manifestation of God. Therefore, even though we may do good deeds, we have not necessarily reached perfection. There must be more to it than that.

To examine this issue further, I turn now to the heart. Baha'u'llah says some important things about the role of the heart in the process of perfection. Perhaps the first thing - and I know this may sound trite - is that we have only one heart. Furthermore, Baha'u'llah tells us that God gave us only one heart because he intended that we should love only one thing: "And as the human heart, as fashioned by God, is one and undivided, it behoveth thee to take heed that its affections be, also, one and undivided." 17 What, then, is the one thing we should love? No prizes for guessing. We should love God. Baha'u'llah pulls no punches about the fact that he wants us to love him above everything else: "I desire to be loved alone and above all that is." (AHW:8) Having claimed the sole right to our heart, Baha'u'llah refers it as his home: "Thy heart is my home." (AHW:59) However, whether or not God gets to live at home depends on us. Here we face another important choice: what should we love? God can't move in if someone else is living our heart. We must throw "the stranger" out: "Cast out then the stranger, that the Friend may enter His home." (PHW:26)

When I introduced the concept of detaching from the world, I said that it was closely related to the concept of perfecting the self. This is the point where the two concepts end up in the same place. We saw that detachment from the world was our ability to pull our self out of our absorption in the worldly reality so that we can concentrate on God. This is the same process as casting the stranger out of our heart. The 'stranger' is 'the world'. 18 We have to detach from the world so that it does not occupy our heart. When it does colonise us, all our faculties are given over to it. It lives in us and we live in it, and there is no room for the divine realities. But when we cast out the stranger, we cast out the worldly reality and God's spiritual realities are able to take over.

The act of casting out the world is what puts us on the path to perfection. This is because it empties us and allows the fourth spirit, the spirit of faith, to fill our soul. Like all spirit, the spirit of faith is a power and it has a tremendous effect on us. Put simply, it is the power that perfects us. 'Abdu'l-Baha says: "The [spirit of faith] is the power which makes the earthly man heavenly, and the imperfect man perfect." (SAQ:144-5) We become perfect as a result of the Holy Spirit operating inside us. Good deeds alone are not the measure of perfection. Perfection is a state of the soul and our good deeds are a fruit of that state. A person who is filled with the spirit of faith will do good deeds because these are a natural outflow of a spiritual state of being. The good deeds are 'one' with the person's spirituality in the same way that a ray of light is 'one' with the sun. Such a person will be kind to their enemies, as 'Abdu'l-Baha exhorts us to be, because kind actions will be the expression of their spiritual state. Their detachment stops them reacting to what others do to them within the worldly reality.

When the spirit of faith perfects us, not only does our character improve, but we gain other things as well, including divine knowledge. The spirit of faith awakens us to divine knowledge by illuminating our soul and revealing realities that are otherwise invisible. 'Abdu'l-Baha explains: "The human spirit, unless assisted by the spirit of faith, does not become acquainted with the divine secrets and the heavenly realities… Until a ray of the sun reflects upon it, it cannot discover the heavenly secrets." (SAQ:208-9) In fact, the spirit of faith is the means by which we acquire all the divine attributes. It teaches us divine knowledge and is the source of the other virtues as well. This fact reflects the principle that all the attributes of God are one. 19 For example, knowledge and perfection, although different in their effects, are in essence the same thing.

Let's put what we've learned from the last two sections together onto the table. I have charted the process of perfecting the self and how it leads to divine knowledge. You'll notice that I have taken the first three methods of knowing (senses, reason and scripture) off the top of the table because, here, we are solely concerned with the fourth method of knowing. I've added "spirit of faith" to the first box because the spirit of faith is a bounty of the Holy Spirit.

step 1

step 2

step 3

step 4

4

the bounty of the Holy Spirit through the spirit of faith

worship: we turn away from the world to God

the power of the Holy Spirit enters our being

we cast the stranger out of our heart and experience the perfections

the Holy Spirit teaches us the heavenly mysteries

Reading along the boxes, beginning with step 1, the perfection process goes like this: through the spiritual disciplines associated with worship, we take our attention away from the world and turn to God. This attracts the bounty of the Holy Spirit and, as our hearts are freed of the stranger, the Holy Spirit pervades our self and we experience the divine perfections and learn the heavenly mysteries.

True liberty

You may have noticed that in my discussion on the self, I did not mention desire. I defined the self in terms of the spirit. But Baha'u'llah sometimes uses the phrase 'self and desire' to refer to the state a person lives in when they have not cast the world away; for example: "They [the unbelievers] scoffed at the verses, a single letter of which … quickeneth the dead of the valley of self and desire with the spirit of faith." (I:209)

The phrase 'self and desire' tells us much about what it's like to live in the world. We saw in the section on detachment that the world absorbs us in the reality of our material lives. Within that, we define who we are and decide what we want and then set about achieving our goals and getting our needs met. But to what extent can the physical world deliver what we want? Baha'u'llah points out that the world is a contingent one. The dictionary defines 'contingent' as meaning "of uncertain occurrence". That means the world is unreliable and unstable. It may not deliver the results we want and, if it does, the situations we are in may not be lasting. "Say: People of the earth, do you not see the transformations occurring in the land, and the changes the earth is undergoing, such that no second goes by without most affairs therein suffering an alteration? Therefore, what sign reassures your hearts and souls?"20

Baha'u'llah used the analogy of the mirage to illustrate the fact that the world does not fulfill our desires: "Verily I say, the world is like the vapor in a desert, which the thirsty dreameth to be water and striveth after it with all his might, until when he cometh unto it, he findeth it to be mere illusion." (G:CLIII,328-9) We desire a certain thing, imagining that it will meet our needs, and go after it, unaware that it can't deliver what we hope. Baha'u'llah describes this state as the prison of self and desire.21 The world delivers constant disappointments but keeps on appearing to offer what we want, so we keep on chasing. Over time, the disappointments take a heavy toll in the form of emotions such as anxiety, anger and unhappiness. We also retreat into states such as arrogance and self-righteousness, in an effort to paste a stable reality over our inherent powerlessness.

So what can we do? Baha'u'llah explains that God's purpose in making the physical world contingent is to drive us away from it and towards his spiritual worlds: "Such things take place only that the souls of men may develop and be delivered from the prison-cage of self and desire." 22 If we are honest about the world's disappointments, they will eventually force us to detach from the worldly reality altogether. Like the watchmen in the Valley of Knowledge,23 who drove the man to scale the wall, the world's contingencies are the divine purpose driving us to let go the worldly reality and become free. This is what Baha'u'llah refers to as true liberty: "Gird up the loins of thine endeavor, that perchance thou mayest release the captive from his chains, and enable him to attain unto true liberty." (G:XLIII,92) Usually, when we think of liberty, we think of it in political terms such as democracy and human rights. But political freedoms and true liberty are different things. Political liberties are worldly realities only, whereas true liberty is a spiritual state of the soul. Lots of people have political freedoms but are not free of self and desire.

Baha'u'llah outlines in a Hidden Word the key things we are freed from when we detach from the world. These are destruction, death, toil and sin:

"O son of worldliness! … glorious is the domain of eternity, shouldst thou pass beyond the world of mortality… Shouldst thou attain this station, thou wouldst be freed from destruction and death, from toil and sin." (PHW:70)

Let's take a look at these. "Toil" refers to the effort we put in on the treadmill of worldly pursuits. Desire drives us to pursue outcomes that we believe are in our best interests. But when we become freed from the world, we are no longer consumed with worldly goals. Instead, we measure what is worthwhile from the perspective of our new spiritual reality. From that viewpoint, there is no question about what is important. It becomes a burning desire to tell others how to be free, and this means teaching the faith. "Whoso hath loved Thee, can never feel attached to his own self, except for the purpose of furthering Thy Cause." 24

Baha'u'llah tells us that freeing people's hearts of desire is the key way that we can help God. He explains this in a short commentary on the meaning of 'rendering assistance unto God'. 25 This is what he says: God is independent of the world and has given it - that is, its dominion, management and affairs - to the kings and rulers. "That Lord hath entrusted the kingdom of creation, its lands and seas, into the hands of kings." Next, he says that God's sole interest is in possessing the hearts of men. We saw this when we learned that God considers our hearts to be 'home' and won't stand for any competition there. Baha'u'llah concludes from these two ideas - that God is interested in the hearts but not the world - that we do not assist God by fighting or contending with any soul. The point he is making is that we don't assist God by contending with others in an effort to change the world, because God has no investment in it anyway. Instead, God's sole interest is in our hearts and in seeing them cleansed of the world so that "they may be made worthy recipients of the effulgent spendours". Therefore, 'rendering assistance unto God' means subduing hearts, "which are ruled by the hosts of self and passion", with words of wisdom and understanding. This conclusion is restated later on in the commentary:

"The friends of God have not, nor will they ever, set their hopes upon the world and its ephemeral possessions. The one true God hath ever regarded the hearts of men as His own, His exclusive possession… that haply mortal souls may be purged and sanctified from all that pertaineth to the world of dust and gain admittance into the realms of eternity."

Again, the key ingredient for success in the effort to free others isn't to argue or contend with them. Instead, it is to be free oneself: "Whoso seeketh to assist God must, before all else, conquer, with the sword of inner meaning and explanation, the city of his own heart and guard it from the remembrance of all save God." The point is that we cannot teach a person about divine knowledge unless we know it to teach! 26

What does it mean to be freed from sin? Usually, we think of sin in terms of bad deeds such as telling a lie. But the discussion so far has revealed another way of looking at it. The fundamental sin is our state of captivity to desire. While lost in it, we "chase after this and that" 27 and are oblivious of God. In addition, we desire things that God has not ordained for us 28 and, in an effort to get what we want, we ignore the effect our actions have on others. 29 When we become freed from the world, the fundamental sin of forgetting God is overcome and other sins drop away along with our self-centred pursuits.

However, perfection is relative and so it is inevitable that, to some extent, we will continue to make mistakes and sin. One tragic possibility is that our spiritual station goes to our heads. Baha'u'llah says that, if a person who has attained eternal life should "fall prey to pride and vainglory, he would at that very moment come to naught and return to the first step without realizing it."30

There is also another way of looking at freedom from sin and that is in terms of guilt and shame. When we have sinned, we react to what we've done with denial, regret, guilt and so forth, and cannot find inner peace. "If a human being commits the least iniquity within himself, he will not be content with himself."31 So being free from sin isn't just a matter of not sinning any more; it is also a matter of coming to terms with what we have done in the past. If we have wronged someone, then we will not be able to detach from them. Our hearts will be linked to them through our discontent about the situation. But when we learn to see life from the spiritual perspective, we can come to terms with what we did and settle our account with it. In the ninth Glad-Tidings, Baha'u'llah counsels us, when we find ourselves "wholly detached and freed from all save God" to "beg forgiveness and pardon from Him". He gives us a prayer to say for this purpose.32 Baha'u'llah also says that if we acknowledge his truth and turn to him, our good works outweigh our misdeeds and our sins are forgiven. "Thus God turneth iniquity into righteousness, were ye to explore the realms of divine knowledge." (I:114)

The following passage contains an example of a man who has been freed from sin. Baha'u'llah says of him: "Thou hast mentioned Husayn. We have attired his temple with the robe of forgiveness and adorned his head with the crown of pardon. It beseemeth him to pride himself among all men upon this resplendent, this radiant and manifest bounty. Say: Be not despondent. After the revelation of this blessed verse it is as though thou hast been born anew from thy mother's womb. Say: Thou art free from sin and error. Truly God hath purged thee with the living waters of His utterance in His Most Great Prison." 33

Lastly, there is destruction and death. The Sufis have traditionally referred to the state of being free as 'dying to the world and living in God'. Baha'u'llah uses this phrase to open his description of the seventh valley in The Seven Valleys: "This station is the dying from self and the living in God." 34 The idea is that you 'die' to the world because you no longer invest your self in it and you 'live' in God because you take up a new life in the spiritual realities. The new life in God is the same thing as the traditional Christian concept of being born again. Baha'u'llah explains this in the following passage:

"Even as Jesus said: 'Ye must be born again.' Again He saith: 'Except a man be born of water and of the Spirit, he cannot enter into the Kingdom of God…' The purport of these words is that whosoever in every dispensation is born of the Spirit and is quickened by the breath of the Manifestation of Holiness, he verily is of those that have attained unto 'life' and 'resurrection' and have entered into the 'paradise' of the love of God." (I:118)

The passage explains that we are born twice: the first time into the physical world of the flesh and the second time into the spiritual worlds of the Kingdom of God. Baha'u'llah describes those who have been born again as having attained to "life". And he goes on, in the same passage, to state that the opposite is also true: a person who is not born again can be characterised as 'dead': "And whosoever is not of them, is condemned to 'death' and 'deprivation'."

Baha'u'llah explains why the life of the spirit is called 'life' and the life of the flesh is called 'death'. He says that the spiritual life is "true life" because it is eternal and is not overtaken by death: "True life is not the life of the flesh but the life of the spirit… This life knoweth no death, and this existence is crowned by immortality." This contrasts with the life of the flesh, which we share with animals and always leads to death. Therefore, the life of the flesh is referred to as 'death'. Getting back to the Hidden Word, Baha'u'llah says that if we pass beyond the world of mortality and attain the domain of eternity, we will be freed from destruction and death. Now we can see that he means we will be born into, and live in, an eternal life, which is not subject to death and destruction like our physical life is.

The life of the spirit and the life of the flesh are also referred to as 'life' and 'death' because of the vast difference between them in quality of existence. To illustrate this, 'Abdu'l-Baha cites the difference between a stone and a person. Both exist, but the quality of the stone's existence is vastly inferior to that of a person. The same difference exists between the spiritual life of a person who has woken from sleep and the material life of a person who has not. This principle also applies in the next world. All of us die and continue to live in the next world, but our lives in the next world are vastly different. 'Abdu'l-Baha explains: "Man is immortal and lives eternally. For those who believe in God, who have love of God and faith, life is excellent - that is, it is eternal; but to those souls who are veiled from God, although they have life, it is dark, and in comparison with the life of believers it is nonexistence." (SAQ:242-3)

The City of Certitude

When we detach from the world and attain true liberty, the Holy Spirit has led us to a spiritual reality Baha'u'llah calls the City of Certitude. As the name indicates, the divine knowledge that comes from this city gives us certitude. But this certitude isn't an intellectual knowledge of God that stands in opposition to doubt. This certitude comes from experiencing the reality of God. In this city, we "perceive all the hidden teachings from the rustling leaves of the Tree". Here, there is no such thing as doubt.

In the famous passage in the Kitab-i-Iqan, 35 which is sometimes called 'the tablet of the true seeker', Baha'u'llah gives a detailed description of the City of Certitude and the transformation a believer goes through to reach it. I will outline what he says, quoting sections and adding some thoughts in commentary. The process Baha'u'llah describes is the essential spiritual path we all walk in order to return to God. It is the map for getting to our eternal home. My purpose in explaining the concepts covered so far in this commentary has been to help us better understand this process.

The passage begins with Baha'u'llah outlining what a believer must do in order to be a true seeker of divine knowledge. We must begin by purifying our self of all that pertains to the world, so that the mysteries of God can be revealed in us:

"O my brother, when a true seeker determineth to take the step of search in the path leading to the knowledge of the Ancient of Days, he must, before all else, cleanse and purify his heart, which is the seat of the revelation of the inner mysteries of God, from the obscuring dust of all acquired knowledge, and the allusions of the embodiments of satanic fancy. He must purge his breast… of every defilement, and sanctify his soul from all that pertaineth to water and clay … [He] must renounce the peoples of the earth, detach himself from the world of dust, and cleave unto Him Who is the Lord of Lords."

After outlining the qualities of the true seeker, Baha'u'llah goes on to describe the transformation that takes place in a person who fulfills the conditions he has laid down. When the detached soul is freed from the prison of self and desire, it becomes filled with a passionate and obsessive desire for God. God fills the believer's soul with loving kindness and knowledge and this removes the seeker's doubts:

"Only when the lamp of search, of earnest striving, of longing desire, of passionate devotion, of fervid love, of rapture, and ecstasy, is kindled within the seeker's heart, and the breeze of His loving-kindness is wafted upon his soul, will the darkness of error be dispelled, the mists of doubts and misgivings be dissipated, and the lights of knowledge and certitude envelop his being."

The believer goes from a state of life-long doubt and confusion to a state of complete certitude about God. The new knowledge that the Holy Spirit brings from the City of God electrifies the believer, whose heart, soul and spirit wake up from the sleep of material life:

"At that hour will the mystic Herald, bearing the joyful tidings of the Spirit, shine forth from the City of God resplendent as the morn, and, through the trumpet-blast of knowledge, will awaken the heart, the soul, and the spirit from the slumber of negligence."

The bounty and grace of the Holy Spirit take effect and the believer discovers that the spiritual faculties, such as sight, hearing, loving and knowing, have a new use. Instead of being occupied with the reality of material life, they are now used for the divine realities and the knowledge they bestow. The believer can now see with the eye of God. By reading the signs of God in creation and penetrating the mysteries of divine knowledge, the seeker is constantly led to an inner certitude:

"Then will the manifold favours and outpouring grace of the holy and everlasting Spirit confer such new life upon the seeker that he will find himself endowed with a new eye, a new ear, a new heart, and a new mind. He will contemplate the manifest signs of the universe, and will penetrate the hidden mysteries of the soul. Gazing with the eye of God, he will perceive within every atom a door that leadeth him to the stations of absolute certitude."

Baha'u'llah now gives a detailed description of the acute discernment that divine knowledge bestows on the detached believer. The new mystical insight provides the person with an abiding source of divine guidance. At all times, the believer can tell what's true and what's false and what's a sign of God and what's the actions and speech of humans, and is able to discern these things irrespective of physical distance:

"I swear by God! … So great shall be the discernment of this seeker that he will discriminate between truth and falsehood even as he doth distinguish the sun from shadow. … He will likewise clearly distinguish all the signs of God… from the doings, words and ways of men, even as the jeweller who knoweth the gem from the stone, or the man who distinguisheth the spring from autumn and heat from cold. When the channel of the human soul is cleansed of all worldly and impeding attachments, it will unfailingly perceive the breath of the Beloved across immeasurable distances, and will, led by its perfume, attain and enter the City of Certitude."

The believer is led by the divine fragrances to the City of Certitude. The "darkness of error" and the "mists of doubts and misgivings" have been removed and the believer now accesses abiding divine guidance.

What exactly is the City of Certitude? We have established that it is a spiritual reality that we access when we walk the path outlined above. But there is another key thing to know: it is also the reality of the Word of God. "That city is none other than the Word of God revealed in every age and dispensation." This means that when we access divine knowledge from the City of Certitude, we are accessing it from the Word of God. The Word of God isn't just words in a book; it is also a spiritual reality that we experience inside us.

One way to see how guidance from the City of Certitude works is to contrast it with what happens in the world. In the world, we are taught standards that have been set by other people. For example, our community teaches standards that define what is good and bad. People live their lives in accordance with these and make considerable sacrifices for them, honestly believing that they are right. The problem with guidance from others is that their standards are developed within the valley of self and desire. People honestly believe a certain thing is good or bad because that perception fits their experience of reality - the context of their life, their goals, their desires and their needs. Inevitably, these standards run foul of the world's contingency. The world changes and people change and, with them, so do human standards. One day it might be in fashion to pursue one thing and the next day it might be wrong to do that. Remember Baha'u'llah's story about the man who was fooled by the mirage? Perhaps the 'water' he is chasing is a goal society assures him will please God. He chases after it but finds when he gets to it that it hasn't turned out as he planned and it doesn't seem like God is pleased at all.

If the man chasing the mirage wants to please God, he needs to do the opposite to what he is doing. He needs to stop looking to the standards given to him by the world. As long as he is looking at those standards, he is not heeding the divine ones. Baha'u'llah makes this clear in the first paragraph of the Kitab-i-Iqan:

"Man can never hope to attain unto the knowledge of the All-Glorious… unless and until he ceases to regard the words and deeds of mortal men as a standard for the true understanding and recognition of God and His Prophets." (I:3)

The only place we can get divine guidance is from Baha'u'llah. He bestows it on us through our self as we pursue the worship process. He uses our faculties to show us what he wants us to know; for example, he says: "Thy hearing is My hearing, hear thou therewith. Thy sight is My sight, do thou see therewith." (AHW:44)

Let's look briefly at what it means to shift from reliance on human standards to reliance on divine guidance through the self. I think a good way of seeing it is in the fact that Baha'u'llah referred to the reality of certitude as a 'city'. This is a metaphor, an allusion, and constitutes part of the second language. A city is a place you live in; it is your home. But if you do not already live there, it is a place you have to travel to in order to get there. Someone could tell you about it and then you would have an intellectual knowledge of it. But in order to experience it, you have to move your self and go there. An Air New Zealand commercial makes this point by saying "Being there is everything". The same is true for the City of Certitude. You have to be there to know. You'll recall that the second language is a divine touchstone that tests the purity of our hearts. To pass the test, we have to purify our hearts so that we can experience this spiritual reality within us. When we make that effort, Baha'u'llah manifests himself inside us - "Thy spirit is My place of revelation; cleanse it for My manifestation" (AHW:59) - and we arrive at the City of Certitude.

We can see how divine guidance works if we look at where it fits on the table. It belongs on row 4 because it is a bounty of the Holy Spirit.

4

the bounty of the Holy Spirit

under the control of the Holy Spirit and perfect

worship

moves, changes and perfects the self

divine knowledge;
divine guidance from the City of Certitude

Divine guidance comes to us when we perfect our self through the process of worship and attain a sanctified state of being.

In most cases, people fail to make the transition from dependence on the standards of the world to dependence on the standards of God, as these are revealed within themselves. They find it hard to trust that they are able to determine what's right, and worry that they'll be upsetting God. Here's a note of assurance. Baha'u'llah promises that God will not test us beyond our capacity. When it comes to determining what's right and wrong, he will never withhold from us the inner resources needed to make a good decision.

"Take heed lest ye allow yourselves to be shut out as by a veil from this Day Star that shineth above the dayspring of the Will of your Lord, the All-Merciful… Purge your sight, that ye may perceive its glory with your own eyes, and depend not on the sight of any one except your self, for God hath never burdened any soul beyond its power." (G:LII,106-7)

As Baha'u'llah reasons, if we did not have the capacity to make good decisions for ourselves, then God could not hold us responsible for making the wrong ones.36

Having now discussed how to reach our home in the City of Certitude, I am, in one sense, at the end of the commentary. I want to finish by discussing the meaning of the quote on the title page of this commentary and examining how knowledge can be a veil. But first, let's take a moment to remember what the difficult struggle for detachment is for. Here's Baha'u'llah's description of the delights of the City of Certitude:

"How unspeakably glorious are the signs, the tokens, the revelations, and splendours which He Who is the King of names and attributes hath destined for that City! The attainment of this City quencheth thirst without water, and kindleth the love of God without fire. Within every blade of grass are enshrined the mysteries of an inscrutable wisdom, and upon every rose-bush a myriad nightingales pour out, in blissful rapture, their melody. Its wondrous tulips unfold the mystery of the undying Fire in the Burning Bush, and its sweet savours of holiness breathe the perfume of the Messianic Spirit. It bestoweth wealth without gold, and conferreth immortality without death. In every leaf ineffable delights are treasured, and within every chamber unnumbered mysteries lie hidden.

They that valiantly labour in quest of God's will, when once they have renounced all else but Him, will be so attached and wedded to that City that a moment's separation from it would to them be unthinkable. They will hearken unto infallible proofs from the Hyacinth of that assembly, and receive the surest testimonies from the beauty of its Rose and the melody of its Nightingale."

The veil of knowledge

In this final section, I want to explore what Baha'u'llah means in the passage I have quoted on the front page of this commentary:

"'The most grievous of all veils is the veil of knowledge.'
Upon its ashes We have reared the tabernacle of divine knowledge." (I:188)

We have already looked closely at what divine knowledge is and the difference between it and the knowledge we get from material education and human education. Let's look now at what Baha'u'llah means by a "veil". Obviously, a veil is a thing that hides something. But we are talking here about spiritual realities, so we need to understand how a thing can hide something in a spiritual way. In the following passage, Baha'u'llah illustrates how this happens:

"Consider a pearl which shineth by virtue of its inherent nature. If it be covered with silk, its luster and beauty will be concealed. Likewise, man's distinction lieth in the excellence of his conduct and in the pursuit of that which beseemeth his station, not in childish play and pastimes. Know that thy true adornment consisteth in the love of God and in thy detachment from all save Him, and not in the luxuries thou dost possess." 37

Baha'u'llah begins by likening our divine self to a pearl. It shines with perfect beauty because that is a characteristic of its inherent nature. However, its shining beauty can be hidden by something as thin and delicate as a piece of silk. The implication is that any thing at all, no matter how thin, will act as a veil because it covers our self and stops its beauty from being revealed. The second and third sentences of the passage tell us that our inherent beauty lies in our distinction, excellent conduct, what beseems our station and the love of God. These virtues are veiled by the things of the world, such as its "childish play and pastimes" and "luxuries". In order to remove them, we need to detach from them entirely.

The tradition "The most grievous of all veils is the veil of knowledge" tells us that "knowledge" is a veil - the most grievous one. How can knowledge act as a veil? To answer this, let's look again at the table.

1

the senses

under the control of humans and imperfect

learning

material education and human education

2

reason

3

scripture

4

the bounty of the Holy Spirit

under the control of the Holy Spirit and perfect

worship

divine education

We know that through the worship process, we gain a divine education and divine knowledge. The knowledge that gets in the way of that process must therefore be the knowledge we gain from material education and human education. For some reason, we do not detach from that knowledge. We cling to it and it stops us being filled with the Holy Spirit and revealing our inherent divine nature. Note, though, that human knowledge does not have to be a veil. 'Abdu'l-Baha, for example, was an expert in divine knowledge, but knew lots about how the world worked too. He didn't have to abandon that knowledge in order to be near in heart to God.

Now I'll run through how human knowledge acts as a veil. To get to the reality of divine knowledge, we have to detach from the world. In Persian Hidden Word no 11, Baha'u'llah says that this requires us to "blind our eyes" to all but God, "stop our ears" to all but God's Word and "empty ourselves of all learning" except the knowledge of God. In other words, we have to put aside or 'forget' what's in the world and what we've learned from it. Instead, we have to turn our attention inwards to our self and walk the worship path of the soul. If we allow what we see, hear and learn in the physical world to stop us from making that inner journey, then these things become veils. This idea is captured in the verse: "O mystic nightingale! Abide not but in the rose-garden of the spirit." (PHW:1) To walk the worship path, we have to live in the world of the spirit.

What stops us from doing this? The veil of knowledge can take many forms but perhaps one useful way to understand it is in terms of the contingent nature of the world. We saw that the world is unreliable and cannot satisfy our needs and desires except to a limited extent. If we sincerely walk the worship path, the world's disappointments will eventually lead us to detach from the world. If not, we will try to paste a certainty over the contingency. That certainty takes the form of some inner and outer power and control. For example, we might adopt states of arrogance and self-righteousness and gain worldly power or status over others. This is the arena of the most great veil. Human knowledge is used in some way to counter the contingency of the world and becomes the reason why we never sincerely submit to God and embark on the journey of the soul.

Baha'u'llah was scathing about the veil of knowledge. He put it in the category of "veils of glory". A veil of glory is any 'glory' or worldly advantage, status or benefit that makes us too proud to submit to God. Baha'u'llah's key example of people veiled by glory was the divines living in the day of the manifestation. Their ignorance and love of worldly power caused them to "[fail] to submit to the Cause of God, nay, [even refuse] to incline their ears unto the divine Melody." (I:164) These divines relied on the fact that their human knowledge gave them worldly advantage and improved their material lives, so they were not willing to let it go. Like the man chasing the mirage, they imagined that they were walking God's path, but in reality, they had not submitted to it at all. Baha'u'llah devotes a paragraph of the Kitab-i-Aqdas to a warning against this trap: "Beware lest ye be hindered by the veils of glory from partaking of the crystal waters of this living Fountain." 38 And he tells us that "to pierce such veils is the mightiest of all acts, and to rend them asunder the most meritorious of all deeds!" (I:166)

In an important passage in the Kitab-i-Iqan, 39 Baha'u'llah outlines the fundamental choice we have between humbly submitting to God and clinging to human knowledge, and what each one leads to. Those who humbly submit, following the tradition "Fear God, God will teach you", gain divine knowledge. The fruit of this knowledge is patience, longing desire, true understanding and love. Those who cling to human knowledge embody the principle that knowledge is a grievous veil and know "satanic knowledge", which is nothing more than their selfish desire. The fruit of this is arrogance, vainglory and conceit. As we have seen, these are the character flaws we expect to see in someone who clings to human knowledge in a bid to paste certainty over a contingent world.

We are now in a position to make sense of the quote on the title page of the commentary. Here it is in full:

"We have consumed this densest of all veils, with the fire of the love of the Beloved - the veil referred to in the saying: 'The most grievous of all veils is the veil of knowledge.' Upon its ashes, We have reared the tabernacle of divine knowledge. We have, praise be to God, burned the 'veils of glory' with the fire of the beauty of the Best-Beloved. We have driven from the human heart all else but Him Who is the Desire of the world, and glory therein. We cleave to no knowledge but His Knowledge, and set our hearts on naught save the effulgent glories of His light." (I:187-8)

Baha'u'llah announces that he has destroyed the veil of knowledge and the veils of glory by burning them with the fire of the love and beauty of God. He has thereby emptied the human heart of these veils and their glories and replaced them with the love of God and its glory. On the ashes of these grievous veils, he has built the sanctuary of the knowledge of God. We should not glory in any other knowledge but his divine knowledge and its light.




1 The address for this commentary is www.whoisbahaullah.com/Alison/know.html

2 Death Before Dying. The Sufi Poems of Sultan Bahu, translated by Jamal J Elias. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1998, p 48.

3 'Kawthar' is the name of a river in Paradise. The concept of the Kawthar of divine knowledge is used by Baha'u'llah in the Kitab-i-Iqan. For example: "Such things are as 'clouds' that veil the eyes of those whose inner being hath not tasted the Salsabil of detachment, nor drunk from the Kawthar of the knowledge of God." Baha'u'llah: Kitab-i-Iqan (The Book of Certitude), translated by Shoghi Effendi. Wilmette, Illinois: Baha'i Publishing Trust, 1989, p 74. Passages from the Kitab-i-Iqan will be referenced in the text as 'I' plus the page number; for example I:74.

4 Baha'u'llah: Gleanings from the Writings of Baha'u'llah, translated by Shoghi Effendi. Wilmette, Illinois: Baha'i Publishing Trust, 1990, section CLIII, pp 326-327. Passages from Gleanings will be referenced in the text as 'G' plus the section number and page number; for example G:CLIII,326-7.

5 'Abdu'l-Baha: Some Answered Questions, translated by Laura Clifford Barney. Wilmette, Illinois: Baha'i Publishing Trust, 1990, p 8. Passages from Some Answered Questions will be referenced in the text as 'SAQ' plus the page number; for example SAQ:8.

6 Sana'i. Quoted by Baha'u'llah in The Seven Valleys and the Four Valleys, Wilmette, Illinois: Baha'i Publishing Trust, 1991, p 52.

7 Mirza Abu'l-Fadl: The Baha'i Proofs, translated by Ali Kuli Khan. Wilmette, Illinois: Baha'i Publishing Trust, 1983, p 144.

8 Ibid, p 144-5.

9 Abu Hamid Ghazzali: "al-munqidh min al-dalal" (The Deliverer from Error). Quoted in R A Nicholson: The Idea of Personality in Sufism, Lahore: Sh. Muhammad Ashraf, 1964, p 54.

10 Baha'u'llah: Kitab-i Aqdas (The Most Holy Book), Mona Vale, NSW: Baha'i Publications Australia, 1993, paragraph 5.

11 See "Prohibition of Intoxicating Drinks" in The Compilation of Compilations Vol II. Mona Vale, NSW: Baha'i Publications Australia, 1991, no 1785, pp 245-6.

12 "Didst thou behold immortal sovereignty, thou wouldst strive to pass from this fleeting world. But to conceal the one from thee and to reveal the other is a mystery which none but the pure in heart can comprehend." Baha'u'llah: Kalimat-i-Maknunih (The Hidden Words), from the Persian, no 41. Passages from the Hidden Words will be referenced in the text with the letters 'PHW' for the Persian and 'AHW' for the Arabic, plus the number; for example PHW:41.

13 Baha'u'llah: Epistle to the Son of the Wolf, translated by Shoghi Effendi. Wilmette, Illinois: Baha'i Publishing Trust, 1988, p 54.

14 The description of the puppet show and Baha'u'llah's reaction to it is found in Baha'u'llah's "Lawh-i-Ra'is", published in Summons of the Lord of Hosts. Tablets of Baha'u'llah. Haifa, Israel: Baha'i World Centre, 2002, paragraphs 11-18, pp 165-168.

15 Baha'u'llah: Bayán-i-Hadíth-i-Sharíf, 'Man 'arafa nafsahú faqad 'arafa Rabbahú' (Commentary on the tradition "He who knoweth his self hath known his Lord"), translated by Juan Cole. http://www-personal.umich.edu/~jrcole/bhzen.htm

16 "Say: Spirit, mind, soul, and the powers of sight and hearing are but one single reality which hath manifold expressions owing to the diversity of its instruments." Baha'u'llah: "Suriy-i-Ra'is", in Summons of the Lord of Hosts, paragraph 35, p 154.

17 Baha'u'llah: "Suriy-i-Mulk", in Summons of the Lord of Hosts, paragraph 72, p 214.

18 For example: "Wouldst thou gaze upon My beauty, close thine eyes to the world and all that is therein; for My will and the will of another than Me, even as fire and water, cannot dwell together in one heart." PHW:31

19 "We testify that He is One in His Essence, One in His Attributes." Baha'u'llah: Epistle to the Son of the Wolf, p 98.

20 Baha'u'llah: The City of Radiant Acquiescence, translated by Juan Cole. Unpublished in English.

21 For example: "We fain would hope that through thine exertions the wings of men may be sanctified from the mire of self and desire, and be made worthy to soar in the atmosphere of God's love." Baha'u'llah: Epistle to the Son of the Wolf, pp 130-131.

22 Baha'u'llah: Kitab-i-Iqan, p 52. Also, "The contradictions apparent in all things were only ordained to remind you of the impermanence of your selves, so that you might become aware of it and not be obdurate." Baha'u'llah: The City of Radiant Acquiescence.

23 Baha'u'llah: The Seven Valleys and the Four Valleys, pp 13-14.

24 Baha'u'llah: Prayers and Meditations, translated by Shoghi Effendi. Wilmette, Illinois: Baha'i Publishing Trust, 1987, p 198.

25 The short commentary can be found in Baha'u'llah: "Suriy-i-Haykal", in Summons of the Lord of Hosts, paragraphs 210-214, pp 108-111.

26 "How, therefore, can they impart unto others the imperishable fragrance of holiness?" (I:122)

27 "You are yourself the storehouse of God's treasure
yet heedless, you chase after this and that"
-- Baha'u'llah: "Mathnaviy-i Mubarak", line 287, in Franklin Lewis: "Baha'u'llah's Mathnaviy-i Mubarak. Introduction and provisional verse translation" in The Baha'i Studies Review, The Association for Baha'i Studies (English-speaking Europe), Vol 9, 1999/2000, pp 101-157.

28 "O friends! … never desire that which I have not desired for you." PHW:19

29 "In no wise seek an advantage over [others]." PHW:43

30 Baha'u'llah: Javahiru'l-Asrar (Gems of Divine Mysteries). Haifa, Israel: Baha'i World Center, 2002, paragraph 109, p 74.

31 Baha'u'llah: The City of Radiant Acquiescence.

32 Baha'u'llah: "Bisharat" (Glad-tidings), translated by Habib Taherzadeh. In Tablets of Baha'u'llah revealed after the Kitab-i-Aqdas, Haifa, Israel: Baha'i World Centre, 1978, pp 24-25.

33 Baha'u'llah: "Kalimat-i-Firdawsiyyih" (Words of Paradise), in Tablets of Baha'u'llah revealed after the Kitab-i-Aqdas, p 77.

34 Baha'u'llah: The Seven Valleys and the Four Valleys, p 36.

35 The tablet of the true seeker goes from page 191 to page 200. Unless stated otherwise, all quotes in this section on the City of Certitude are from that passage.

36 "It follows, therefore, that every man hath been, and will continue to be, able of himself to appreciate the Beauty of God, the Glorified. Had he not been endowed with such a capacity, how could he be called to account for his failure? … For the faith of no man can be conditioned by any one except himself." Gleanings, section LXXV, p 143.

37 Baha'u'llah: "Suriy-i-Haykal", in Summons of the Lord of Hosts, paragraph 119, p 62.

38 Baha'u'llah: Kitab-i-Aqdas, paragraph 50.

39 "Know verily that Knowledge is of two kinds: Divine and Satanic. The one welleth out from the fountain of divine inspiration; the other is but a reflection of vain and obscure thoughts. The source of the former is God Himself; the motive-force of the latter the whisperings of selfish desire. The one is guided by the principle: 'Fear ye God; God will teach you;' the other is but a confirmation of the truth: 'Knowledge is the most grievous veil between man and his Creator.' The former bringeth forth the fruit of patience, of longing desire, of true understanding, and love; whilst the latter can yield naught but arrogance, vainglory and conceit." (I:69)