Letters of nearness: love, mysticism and ghazals

Alison Marshall

"I sought to gain Our union everywhere;
I scrawled letters of nearness on all earth."
Baha'u'llah, from Ode of the Dove

If I had to write a history of my life, I would tell you about the people I have loved – especially the men! I associate learning with being in love, or with being committed to, or caring about, something. I have always been a sensitive person. On a Myers Briggs assessment, I come out an INFP, which means in practice that I am stuck in my head theorising about feelings and relate to the world accordingly. Perhaps because I am feelings based, I am also naturally straightforward with others about my inner life.

This usually put me out of step with society. I learned many counselling skills from a close friend who was a therapist, but I did not want to become a counsellor. I was too much of a philosopher for that. I had studied philosophy at university and was good at it, but found the Western philosophical tradition dry and academia too narrow for me.

The poor relationship I had had with my father was part of my struggle to find my place in the world. He was tyrannical and emotionally distant. This left me with an emotional hole inside and with the belief that reality was such that the intellect rules the heart. I considered myself unintelligent because my emotions were fundamental to my identity. I couldn’t disregard them or allow them to be dominated by my intellect. I thought God had not given me a self that could live with reality. Others seemed to cope in a competitive public sphere, even if at great cost. But I couldn’t. I believed I would be ‘found out’ one day as a stupid and emotional person.

In 1998, some life-changing events took place. I had a mystical experience that lead me to realise that reality was a partnership of intellect and heart. One did not rule the other, they needed each other and worked together for truth. I suddenly realised that I had been using my intellect all along, but hadn’t been aware of it. This insight came about through my watching a dear friend use his intellect to fight for a cause that was deep in his heart and mine. He demonstrated courage of both heart and mind. His fine example of using his intellect not to dominate, but to stand up for, issues relating to the heart convinced me that intellect was not the ruler in reality, but a servant of it. I will be eternally grateful to him for freeing me from a debilitating illusion. This change enabled me to appreciate the positive characteristics of my father. He was an intelligent person, who looked into things with a searching eye. He loathed hypocrisy, which probably lead to my intolerance of game playing.

A little earlier, just before the fast of 1998, I decided to commit myself to creating a meaningful devotional life. I was inspired by the example of my dear friend, Terry Culhane, who taught me that the Baha’is were in desperate need of Mashriqu’l-Adhkars in their local communities. Christians have churches, but Baha’is do not have physical places of worship because the devotional aspect of Baha’i life is not sufficiently recognised and emphasised. To rectify this, Terry had created his personal house of worship and I wanted to find mine. At the time, I was working full time in the central business district and couldn't find a place to pray during the day. Then I noticed a church close to my office and it suddenly occurred to me that it was there for praying in: why wasn’t I using it! I began going there regularly, and so began my new mystical journey. Over the following months, I had experiences I had never imagined possible.

At that time, again inspired by Terry’s example, I’d developed a special interest in the mystical writings of Baha’u’llah. In particular, I loved the "Tablet of the Houri" (Lawh-i Huriyyih) and "Ode of the Dove" (Qasidiy-i Varqa'iyyih). Both of them contain passages in which Baha’u’llah speaks to The Houri (the Being who brought him the Revelation in the spiritual world) with words of love that I had never expected to hear from a manifestation. I had thought it was beneath manifestations to talk to women like that because in the ‘real’ reality the Intellect still ruled the heart. So Baha’u’llah’s expression of intense desire for The Houri was a bit bewildering, although not unwelcome. All I knew was that this was Baha’u’llah talking, and that in itself made it all right.

Tablet of the Houri struck me because of the way Baha’u’llah and The Houri spoke to each other. I couldn’t believe the tenderness of it. After reading it over and over, it dawned on me that this was the way women and men ought to talk to each other. By revealing the tablet, Baha’u’llah was giving us an example of ideal communication. The tone of the voices started to ring in my head and I noticed them changing the way I spoke. The other important thing about the tablet was the caring nature of The Houri. She was all heart, but Baha’u’llah didn’t treat her as silly for being that way, he loved it! In fact, the whole tablet demonstrated that she was his crucial support system. She was the reason he coped with humanity’s rejection of him. I began to believe that my femininity and feelings were an indispensable part of creation.

Ode of the Dove captivated me because the poetry revealed intense emotion. It is probably the first mystical poem I climbed into. One of my favourite lines was: My joy refined the daylight’s clarity (verse 90). I thought, ‘gosh, Baha’u’llah is so in love, his perception of the world around him is heightened by it, just like mine is!’ And I liked the way, at the height of the drama, he stood up for himself and effectively said to The Houri, ‘I know what I experience, don’t you try to tell me I don’t love you completely!’

If I had limits, they appeared from Thee;
   If I had traits then they derived from Thee.
(verse 89)

And then he goes inside himself, as if he has reached the end of what he can endure and is ready to expire:

I call on thee, life-spirit, to depart;
   within Me, no part is left of the whole.
Transcendent spirit, climb down from thy throne;
   for thee, My stigma is no source of blame.
(verses 94 and 95)

I recognised that place inside myself. I go there when my back is against the wall. It’s interesting that at that point she stops criticising him and starts encouraging him. I think God is like that. He knows when I am pushed to the limit, and that’s always the point at which things change.

Towards the end of 1998, another important event took place - I discovered Sufism (Islamic mysticism). I had wanted to learn about Sufism because it was the next step in my personal study of the Faith. I started reading Corbin’s "Spiritual Body and Celestial Earth" (London: I.B. Tauris, 1990). It’s difficult to explain, but I related immediately to the mystics’ religious experience. I got very excited. They talked about the spiritual world as though it was a real part of their lives on a moment-to-moment basis. They argued for the existence of the imaginal or spiritual world, which we read using our inner selves; that is, our imaginations, hearts, minds and so forth. The movie "What dreams may come" shows how this works. This imaginal or spiritual reality exists alongside the physical reality and it gives our everyday life meaning. The Sufis believed that their dreams and visions occurred in the imaginal world and looked upon them as a vital part of their spirituality. Dreams had always been important guides for me. I had relied on them to inform me of work I needed to do on myself.

Reading that book was like becoming a Baha’i again. I realised that there was a long tradition devoted to questions I was already dealing with, and there was much to learn. A big part of the attraction was the philosophy. It was Islamic philosophy this time. It didn’t waste its time proving the existence of God – it flew! It was a magical combination of philosophy, logic and the examination of reality; of feelings, love and relationships; and dreams and imagination and their interpretation in the self. The other exciting discovery was the intimate connection between Sufism and the Baha’i Faith. Most Baha’is know that the Faith is derived from Islam, but don’t appreciate the debt it owes to the mystical dimension of that religion. So not only had I found Sufism, but I had also found a way into the heart of the Faith. All those years of thinking that I was crazy because I never fitted anywhere, and then I find my home is the heart of the Faith and that I am a mystic!

I was overjoyed to discover that the heart of the mystic’s experience was being in love. The mystic spends her energies devoted to understanding and enhancing that experience. Many people look at being in love as an embarrassment we experience in courtship, but then we get over it and get on with real life. This is not how the mystics see it. For them, it is the heart of the religious experience. That is not to deny that there are other expressions of religion, such as formal study, but the mystics would argue that love is the reason why we do things. It gives religion meaning.

This state of love looks to the objective observer like a life of self-imposed pain. It is intense, dramatic, overwhelming and devastating. But such is the experience of those who do not regulate their emotions in order to conform to social etiquette. The mystics often used the analogy of being drunk to describe the ecstatic feeling they experienced. The 13th century mystic al-Ghazali, an intellectual who discovered mysticism, has left a fabulous explanation of the importance of ‘being’ drunk, as opposed to just talking about it:

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. [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]

Those not immersed in the sea of mystical experience look with scorn at those who display outrageous behaviour in expressing their spirituality. But Baha’u’llah himself says that "earnest striving", "longing desire", "passionate devotion", "fervid love", "rapture" and "ecstasy" are what is needed to walk his path.

I started reading mystical poetry. I was delighted to discover that the poets expressed ecstatic love; in fact, the more out of it on love, the better. Rumi says:

Be drunk on Love, for only Love exists; there’s
No meeting the Beloved without Love as herald.

["Rumi’s Divan of Shems of Tabriz" (Element Books, 1997) p. 75]

And Hafiz:

What is made in the workshop of the universe, all this is nothing.
Bring out the wine, for the goods of the world are nothing.

Heart and soul seek the honor of intimacy with the beloveds.
That is everything. Otherwise, the heart and soul are nothing.

["The Green Sea of Heaven" (Ashland: White Cloud Press, 1995) p. 71]

Sultan Bahu says:

I knew God when love flashed before me…
I only found my Beloved, Bahu, when love made me aware.

["Death Before Dying" (University of California Press, 1998) p. 32]

You will notice that in all three quotes the poets refer to the "beloved". Who is the beloved? Ultimately, the beloved is God, but because we cannot have a direct experience of God, the beloved is the divinity we experience in creation; for example, in Baha’u’llah or in other people. ‘Abdu'l-Baha tells us in his "Commentary on the Islamic Tradition ‘I was a Hidden Treasure’" that there are five loves: the love of God for God; God for creation; creation for creation; creation for God; and the individual for his or her self. But he also tells us that these five loves are one. This can be confusing. For example, Baha'u'llah says we should have only love for him in our hearts: Hast thou ever heard that friend and foe should abide in one heart? (Persian Hidden Word no 26) We think this means we cannot love people, we must love God. But no, the various objects of love in our lives are like the manifestations. There are a number of manifestations, but we are asked to look at them from the point of view of their one Reality. The same is true of the many objects of love in our lives. Whether it be the people we love, with varying intensities and in varying situations, or God or Baha'u'llah, they are all objects of the one Love. From a subjective point of view, they all take us to that sanctuary of the love of God in our hearts.

I decided to write about my experiences of love too. I had never written poetry before, but was driven to do it. My inner life was so intense that I had to express it somehow or go mad. Someone had said that putting one’s feelings into a poem gives them a reality independent of oneself, and this seemed to be what I needed to do. I was also struck by the courage that shone through in Baha’u’llah’s example. Despite being surrounded by enemies, he still had the courage to write intimate poetry. Moreover, I believed that Baha’u’llah’s writings about his beloved were at the heart of reality and, as such, were the "hidden" of the manifest Revelation. They were the spiritual reality upon which the Revelation was based. It occurred to me that my "hidden" was similarly the pole of my spirituality and that I should follow Baha’u’llah’s example and courageously speak of it. I draw on this idea of the "hidden" in the second ghazal that I discuss in this essay.

I struggled to get my feelings out. It wasn’t enough just to have feelings, I needed a language that enabled me to communicate complex inner states effectively. For example, if I say "annihilation", those familiar with mystical terminology know what I am referring to. But it would be a poor poem indeed that stopped to explain it. Gradually, I found myself using the language of poets I had read, especially Baha’u’llah, and using the terms and concepts that I had learned from my study of mysticism.

It took me several months of experimenting to finally decide to write a ghazal. Form wasn’t all that important to me, but I needed to find one I felt comfortable with. Because I was reading much mystical poetry in the traditional form of the ghazal, I found myself writing in a similar form. Hardly believing I could do it, I attempted my first ghazal. The ghazals I had read were all translations and many did not attempt to capture the metre and rhyme of the original. So the ‘ring’ of the ghazal in my head was different to the ‘ring’ in the original language. However, I liked the refrain ("radif") at the end of both lines of the first couplet and every second line of the others and tried to reproduce it (see the poem below). I was encouraged by Gene Doty’s essay, in which he coined the term "free verse" ghazal. He said that English-language ghazals need not be straightjacketed into the traditional form. Those who are used to reading ghazals in Persian may look down their noses at the idea of "free verse" ghazals. But I thought, too bad, I have to start somewhere. Rumi says that to walk the path of Love one must slit the throat of modesty, so I slit mine and began writing.

Buoyed by a measure of success with the first ghazal, I wrote a second one. Ideas were coming at me in all directions and the words almost put themselves together. I showed the poem to my dear friend Mark, and he was very excited and talked me into submitting the poem to The Ghazal Page. He told me that the poem did not belong to me but to humanity and that I had a duty to let it go. I trusted his judgement and sent the poem off. It felt like I was giving away my soul. You can hardly imagine my astonishment when Gene said he wanted to put it up!


Through the veil of love, the beloved’s face is a long
way from the beauty of the one for which she longs.

Shamed by her wretched state, she cowers before the thought
of him; he sees her through it, she can’t hold it for too long.

It "bestows the nourishment of beauty without measure",
and that is a food she has not been used to for long.

If you glance at me, Wild One, I will die. Come
now! Produce the bloodstained hands in which I belong.

Hold this moon to you; impress your spirit’s sweet form
on the waters of this melted soul, for which you long.

He is the curved wave of her breast’s soft form. It is the lover’s
humility that is the beauty for which the beloved longs.

Foolish ones! Reign from the poverty of your heart. Break
your covenant with fear; no need to bring arrogance and pride along.

Go now, Zaynab, and beg his heart be kind to me.
It is the gateway to heaven, and the passage through which I long.


Parts of the poem are derivative of Rumi. I was very influenced by him at the time. I was working through some of his theories on love and was finding a number of applications for them in my life. The opening couplet, for example, is from the Rumi quote found in the Seven Valleys (p. 16):

Love is a veil betwixt the lover and the loved one;
More than this I am not permitted to tell.

I was perplexed by this. At the time, I was aware that my image of my beloved was nowhere near the reality, in the sense that no matter how much we try, we can never have an image of God or a true image of another person. I accepted that the love in my heart was the creator of my image of my beloved and, in that sense, was a ‘veil’ from the real thing. But it was not a veil that I could rid myself of because it was built into the structure of creation.

Also straight from Rumi is the idea that humility is beautiful. It is the lover’s humility that is the beauty for which the beloved longs. I had thought about this idea a great deal, had tested it, and thought it was brilliant. The idea is that love experienced subjectively is a devastating experience. The Sufis refer to it as "ruin". I have tried to capture this in the second couplet. Usually, we resist this feeling of degradation and shame because it is like being naked. But from the point of view of the spiritual beloved, that humility comes across as beauty. A person who is experiencing love has a face that shines, and the beloved has the eyes to see the lover glowing. The word "shame" came from Baha’u’llah’s "Ode of the Dove", where he describes this pathetic feeling in himself:

I waken thee, My heart: thou must depart;
   thou hast no honor in this realm of shame.
(verse 96)

In fact, the experience of love as ruin is fundamental to mysticism. A person in that state will experience many times over an inner death of self, which the Sufis call fana’ or annihilation. This is the point where mysticism becomes magical and powerful. If you let yourself pass through that ‘death’ process, although at the time you believe yourself to have lost everything, you find on the other side that you have gained a new world. This is illustrated in the Valley of Knowledge when the lover finds his beloved on the other side of the wall. It is a trick of perception. If you have the courage to let yourself pass through this inner death each time your journey leads you to it, you discover that it is the path to achieving your soul’s aspirations, and rather than being a place of defeat, it is in fact a place of power. In effect, you transcend the set of circumstances that appears to defeat you to reach another that appears to favour you. Reality changes when your perception of it alters. The impossible proves easy, you realise that there is no such thing as defeat or death because God is the All-Merciful, the All-Loving, the All-Powerful. But if you resist the fana’ experience by creating a false self out of denial, you lock yourself into that set of circumstances that appears to defeat you. You think that reality is something to fight and control and believe you are keeping evil at bay by standing up for what’s ‘right’. But all you are doing is standing in the way of your own growth. You become mean and inflexible and never learn that reality is something in which you can relax, explore and play.

The idea that humility is a place of power is then alluded to again in the second-to-last couplet where it says:

Foolish ones! Reign from the poverty of your heart. Break
your covenant with fear; no need to bring arrogance and pride along.

By this, I mean ‘go to that place of humility in yourself and reign over yourself from there’. As I have explained, we veil ourselves from our true reality, which is nothingness, and try to control the world from our base self, which is an illusion generated out of pride and arrogance. The idea of pride came from Baha’u’llah’s Houri of Wonder (Hur-i ‘Ujab, unpublished in English), in which Baha’u’llah laments the behaviour of those who refused to recognise the beauty of his love in themselves by putting up the veils of pride and suspicion. In these lines (below), we can see that the 'believers' are the ones who responded to the beauty of The Houri by going to that place of humility in themselves (expressed by their crying out). Baha’u’llah refers to this as the denial of self. Those who rejected the Houri are the ones who refused to be attracted by her charms and veiled themselves with pride and suspicion. To my mind, these people have made a covenant with fear instead of taking up the Covenant of Love with The Houri:

Then the hearts of those who understand cried out,
   and that is a wondrous self-denial.
All those filled with pride and suspicion turned away from her,
   and that is nothing but a wondrous opponent.

The quoted line from the third couplet of my ghazal also comes from Baha’u’llah’s poem "Houri of Wonder". In the first section of that poem, Baha’u’llah describes The Houri’s characteristics and the gifts she brings to humanity. One of those gifts is the food of her wondrous beauty. You can also see from the quote below that she has the power to kill lovers, which is symbolised by her crimson palms. I used this idea also in the ghazal. Again, it is an allusion to dying to self (fana’) in order to experience the ecstasy of union:

Say: the houri of eternity removed the veil from her face--
   exalted be the wondrous beauty of newness! …
Her palm is dyed crimson with the blood of lovers,
   and that is a wondrous thing…
She bestowed the nourishment of beauty without measure,
   and that is a wondrous food.

The following lines of my ghazal are built around alchemical symbolism, as Titus Burckhardt explains it in his book "Alchemy. Science of the Cosmos, Science of the Soul" (London: Stuart and Watkins, 1967):

Hold this moon to you; impress your spirit’s sweet form
on the waters of this melted soul, for which you long.

He is the curved wave of her breast’s soft form.

The moon is the body and soul (the feminine principle) in a state of purity ready to receive the spirit (the masculine principle). The spirit is the divine impulse that imprints "form" on the "essence" of the soul, symbolised as water. Hence the union of the two generative principles in creation. I think that waves are an example of this union; they are water filled with the spirit in that they are shaped and moving. I was out by the sea one day and the wind was blowing off the land and onto the sea. It was holding the waves up and turning them into the shape of a breast, which left me experiencing the reality of this union in the sensuality of the breast.

The final line of my ghazal is drawn from Baha’u’llah’s statement: The Word is the master key for the whole world, inasmuch as through its potency the doors of the hearts of men, which in reality are the doors of heaven, are unlocked (Tablets of Baha'u'llah, p 173). I am grateful to Terry for pointing out to me that the hearts are the doors of heaven. I experience love as the act of walking into heaven using the passageway of a person’s heart when it has been opened by the Word of God. Tradition tells us that the heart alone can contain God: Earth and heaven cannot contain Me; what can alone contain Me is the heart of him that believeth in Me, and is faithful to My Cause. When I am in another’s heart or exploring the place where my beloved lives in mine, I meet God and find my home in paradise. Rumi expresses the same idea when he says: love means to fall into a goldmine (Annemarie Schimmel's: "The Triumphant Sun. A Study of the Works of Jalaloddin Rumi" p 335). The goldmine is the heart of one who feels like a mirror image of yourself. The God in you meets the God in them and it feels like perfection and bounty have descended upon you.

After that, I wrote several more poems before I found another one I thought worked.


If Baha’u’llah were to fill your sweet heart with all his joy,
he’d have favoured me, for only he can tell you of my love for you.

The willow in his panorama weeps and reaches low
and my heart weighs full for love of you.

He made my soul in pre-existence from letters of your name.
I didn’t know it was possible to love as I love you.

In spirit, I watch over you; in my mind, I talk to you;
in my dreams, I kiss you. I live all the time through my love for you.

If you turn to me and speak, I go blind and deaf and forget
where I am; I try not to pass out from love of you.

Everything you do is beautiful. The disconnected letters dance
in your words and creation loses its way without news of you.

My eyes weep for my heart, its shaking’s due
to tenderness, left raw by loving you.

Take pity, Zaynab, and nurse the heart of this poor fool.
Can I live another day to abound in sanity in my love for you?


Much of this poem is inspired by Baha’u’llah’s "Tablet of the Vision" (Lawh-i ruya', unpublished in English). In this tablet, Baha’u’llah describes a vision of The Houri in the spiritual world. Baha’u’llah’s visions take place in pre-existence, which means that they are outside of time. Without a beginning or an end, from this point of view they are ‘happening’ all the time.

At one point, Baha’u’llah likens The Houri’s movements to a swaying willow. I have used the image of the willow reaching for water to describe my heart in a state of yearning, just as Baha’u’llah’s would have been when watching The Houri:

She smileth and swayeth like the branch of an Egyptian willow before the panorama of the All-Merciful.

Praise be to God, Who hath made Her manifest; no eye hath ever seen her like.

Baha’u’llah’s encounters with The Houri in visions are the inspiration behind the Baha’i Revelation and they instruct him on the nature of reality. She is the hidden Source of Love, which is why I refer to her as the "hidden" of the manifest Revelation. When Baha’u’llah tells us about his encounters with her in the spiritual world, he is teaching us about ourselves and about our reality. There is an example in the tablet where he tells us that The Houri writes the ledgers of the lovers:

When We gazed at Her face We discovered the Point that had been concealed beneath the veil of oneness dawning forth from the horizon of Her brow, as though it was by means of Her that the tablets of divine love were revealed in the contingent world and the ledgers of the lovers were recorded in the remotest regions.

Exalted be Her Creator; no eye hath ever seen Her like.

In the ghazal, I allude to this pre-existent scene as the place where my ledger of love was written. By saying that my soul is written in the letters of my beloved’s name, I am saying that in this scene, The Houri wrote my reality with those letters. Because this action took place in pre-existence, I now live out that reality as my life. It determines what I am for eternity. I see my poetry as my expression of that reality. I read my ledger of love in my inner self and reveal it in the physical world in the words of my poems. This expression is, for me, the ultimate experience of worshipping God.