Introduction by Juan Cole
A revolution was introduced into Babi culture in the late 1850s and early 1860s by the exiled nobleman Mirza Husayn 'Ali Nuri, known as Baha'u'llah (1817-1892). The messianic Babi movement founded in Iran by Sayyid 'Ali Muhammad Shirazi (1819-1850) had primarily employed an esoteric or gnostic cultural style similar to the kabbalah in Judaism, expressed for the most part in Arabic. In Iraq, Baha'u'llah turned instead to the Sufi or mystical tradition as a vehicle for Babi ideas. The esoteric, Arabic discourse had been aimed in part at shielding Babism from the intolerance of Shi'ite Iran, since most Iranians did not know Arabic (just as medieval Germans did not know Latin), and even those who did would find complex gnostic ideas and language difficult to penetrate. It probably had the side effect, however, of keeping most Babis from a deep knowledge of their own religion. Baha'u'llah's Persian mystical writings were far more accessible to lay Babis in Iran. The style was lucid and crisp, the literary referents easily recognized, and the message was simple and direct. The mixture of Babi conceptions of time, progressive revelation, and world-renewal, with Sufi notions of individual spiritual progress, produced a lively synthesis. The resultant works, moreover, attracted readers to Baha'u'llah, allowing him to win most Babis over to the new Baha'i religion very quickly once he announced himself publicly to them later on, in Edirne (Adrianople).
An Arabic treatise by Baha'u'llah entitled Gems of the Mysteries exemplifies these traits. It was written for Sayyid Muhammad Mujtahid-i Isfahani, who was then living in the shrine city of Najaf some 60 miles south of Baghdad, and who had been a student of the supreme Shi'ite religious leader of the day, Shaykh Murtada al-Ansari. We do not know its exact date of composition.
Baha'u'llah had been exiled to Iraq from Iran for his support of the Babi movement in 1853, and had withdrawn to Ottoman Kurdistan in 1854-56 as a result of some Babis' opposition to the claims he had been making to a special station within Babism. In the Kurdistani town of Sulaymaniyyah, Baha'u'llah had been asked to come live in the convent of the mystical Naqshbandi order, and had made many friends among the Kurdish mystics or Sufis. He also produced mystical poetry in Arabic and Persian, infusing it with the millenarian themes of Babism. Upon his return to Baghdad in 1856, Baha'u'llah wrote a number of prose works in the Sufi style, including the Hidden Words (1858) and the Seven Valleys (late 1850s?). Gems of the Mysteries has much in common with the latter book, but also explores in an embryonic manner many themes addressed in more detail in the Book of Certitude, written for an uncle of the Bab in 1862. It probably lies between these two works, and certainly precedes the latter, since it is mentioned there. In referring to his exegesis of some Gospel verses about the end-time, he says, "in unfolding these mysteries, We have, in Our former Tablets which were addressed to a friend in the melodious language of Hijaz, cited a few of the verses revealed unto the Prophets of old." The opening pages of Gems of the Mysteries are so close in spirit to the Book of Certitude, indeed, that I am inclined to guess that it must have been written not long before, perhaps in 1861. Unlike both the latter two books, the Gems is in Arabic, and quotes Arab Sufi poets such as the medieval Egyptian mystic 'Umar Ibnu'l-Farid. For a learned jurisprudent such as Sayyid Muhammad Mujtahid-i Isfahani, a treatise written in Arabic would carry more weight than one written in Persian.
Mujtahid-i Isfahani was not the first of al-Ansari's students of jurisprudence to embrace Baha'u'llah. Around 1858-59, the learned jurisprudent Aqa Muhammad "Nabil-i Akbar" Qa'ini Nabil-i Akbar had a mystical experience while listening to Baha'u'llah's discourse. Nabil-i Akbar wrote Baha'u'llah and he received an answer that began "I was a servant before Being was created" (kuntu 'abdan qabla an yukhlaq alwujud). This phrase recalls the holy saying (hadith qudsi) attributed to the Prophet Muhammad, "I was a prophet while Adam was still between water and clay." Nabil-i Akbar replied that he was convinced, asking what he should do. Baha'u'llah asked him to return to his home in northeastern Iran and exalt the word of God. Nabil-i Akbar had also been a student of Shaykh Murtada al-Ansari, and it is difficult to believe that he was not connected in some way to the conversion of Mujtahid-i Isfahani, recipient of Gems of the Mysteries, though there is no such reference in the sources about him.
'Abdu'l-Hamid Ishraq-Khavari, without citing any source, informs us that Mujtahid-i Isfahani had studied with Shaykh Murtada al-Ansari in Samarra long enough to receive his diploma (ijazih) authorizing him to interpret Islamic law independently. He intended to return to Isfahan and become a leading divine in that city. After his studies, he came to Baghdad for a while, living in the house of two pious Shi'ite merchants, Haji Ja'far and Haji Khalil. In that city he learned of the existence of a Babi community, and thought he might make a name for himself by besting them in debate. He contacted them, apparently running into partisans of Baha'u'llah, and instead of his defeating them in these religious disputations, they succeeded in converting him. Ishraq-Khavari says that Mujtahid-i Isfahani met Baha'u'llah himself, but this is not possible, since in Gems of the Mysteries Baha'u'llah says, "We have never seen thee to outward appearing," and makes it clear he was corresponding through a courier. In any case, Mujtahid-i Isfahani returned to the merchants and revealed to them the good news he had found. They, being zealous Shi'ites, grew furious, and turned him out of their house that evening without supper. He made his way by foot back to Samarra, where he announced his new beliefs in a study class held by al-Ansari. Some of the students were enraged, but Shaykh Murtada intervened to keep them from attacking Mujtahid-i Isfahani. Al-Ansari was known for his extreme caution, and responded only by saying he intended to make a study of this subject. Only one of the students in the class investigated the matter further, Mulla 'Ali Naqi Simnani, who also became a Babi and went to Baghdad to meet Baha'u'llah. He also informed Shaykh Murtada al-Ansari of his decision, and went to the shrine cities (Najaf or Karbala), but no more is known of him. Sayyid Muhammad Mujtahid-i Isfahani gave up any plans for a career as a Shi'ite clergyman and went to Najaf, where he taught the Babi faith to his acquaintances. At that point he sent a number of his questions to Baha'u'llah with a trusted friend who was travelling to Baghdad, and the Gems was the reply he received.
The beginning of the treatise is taken up with a commentary on the "minor apocalypse" verses from the Gospels quoting Jesus on prophecies about the last days. Baha'u'llah insists, against Muslim doctrine, that the existing New Testament is a reliable record of Jesus's ministry, and that Christians were no more satisfied in wishing to see a literal darkening of the sun and moon and the fall of the stars to earth (Mt 24:29-31) before accepting Muhammad than Muslims were in wishing to see various eschatological prophecies of a fabulous nature fulfilled before they would accept the Bab. Later on, in the Book of Certitude, Baha'u'llah carried out an extensive figurative exegesis of these Gospel verses, but here he simply cites them as a problem for literal-minded Christians and Muslims.
The bulk of Gems of the Mysteries is taken up with a description of the stages along the mystical path. Here the work follows the classical Sufi poem, Faridu'd-Din 'Attar's (d. 1220) Parliament of the Birds (Mantiq ut-Tayr), as had the Seven Valleys earlier. In 'Attar's fable, 30 birds set out to find the mythical fowl Simurgh, which turns out to be in some sense themselves (though this outcome should not be interpreted as facile pantheism). Along the way the author shares Sufi anecdotes and teaching stories, and toward the end he sets out the seven stages of the mystic quest. In his telling these are the valley of the quest, the valley of love, the valley of insight, the valley of detachment, the valley of unity, the valley of bewilderment, and the valley of poverty and nothingness (fana'). These were more or less the same spiritual states that Baha'u'llah explored in his the Seven Valleys. Baha'u'llah's treatment of these themes involved further quotations and anecdotes from 'Attar, as well as from other mystical Persian poets such as Jalalu'd-Din Rumi, Khwajih 'Abdu'llah Ansari, and Hafiz.
Baha'u'llah also authored a work known in English as the Four Valleys (which actually speaks only of mystical states [maqam] rather than of valleys) in a similar vein. Others of Baha'u'llah's works in the late 1850s were cast in the form of the exploration of similar spiritual stages, such as his Tablet of the City of Divine Unity (Lawh Madinat at-Tawhid) and Tablet of the City of Radiant Acquiescence (Lawh Madinat ar-Rida).
Stages of the mystic quest
In Gems of the Mysteries, Baha'u'llah sometimes speaks of cities, sometimes of gardens. The first is, as before, the garden of search. This is followed by the city of love, the city of unity, the garden of bewilderment, the city of nothingness (fana'), the city of eternal life (baqa'), and the city that has no name. He says that the impatience of his correspondent's courier was so great that he was unable to mention a number of other important stages on the path, including self-surrender (taslim) and contentment (rida: the latter was treated in a separate tablet). It seems clear that there was nothing magical for Baha'u'llah about the number seven with regard to these stages, that he thought they were quite numerous, and that he did not hold to them in a scholastic or schematic fashion. Here, different valleys are mentioned and in a different order than in previous works. I think the rearrangement quite significant of positions in middle Babism that Baha'u'llah wished to underline.
The valley of search is characterized by the inability of the seeker to get beyond contradictions, and can only successfully be traversed if he or she adopts an attitude of strict fairness and lack of bias. The city of love is one of rapture with the divine, of emotional outbursts, of tears and ecstasy. So far, the journey is very similar to that laid out in the Seven Valleys. But with the city of unity (tawhid), this work takes on a character of its own. The discussion under this rubric is perhaps the longest in the treatise. Here the seeker discerns only oneness everywhere he or she looks. More especially, it becomes apparent that all of the prophets and messengers of God are "one temple, one soul, one light and one spirit." The unity of the High Prophets, such as Moses, Jesus, Muhammad and the Bab, was to form a key theme of the Book of Certitude, and here it is explored in similar terms, though much more concisely. The doctrine rests upon the idea, rooted in Neoplatonic Shi'ism, that the prophets are theophanies or manifestations of the names and attributes of God. Thus, they are all equally theophanies, even though their personalities and historical circumstances differed.
Shi'ites believed that the Prophet Muhammad's spiritual and temporal successors as leaders of Islam ought to have been 'Ali ibn Abi Talib (the Prophet's cousin and son-in-law) and his descendants through Fatimah, the prophet's daughter. Twelver Shi'ites, the majority in Iran and Iraq, hold that the eleventh Imam, Hasan al-'Askari, left behind a small son when he died in A.D. 873 or 874 (1260 A.H.), who vanished into a supernatural realm. Baha'u'llah affirms the truth of Shi'ite expectations that this son, Muhammad al-Mahdi, would return from the mystical city of Jabulqa'. But he insists that Jabulqa' is a symbol rather than a place, and needs to be interpreted figuratively. As a Babi, Baha'u'llah believed that the return of the hidden Twelfth Imam was itself a metaphor for the advent of the Bab ("his name was Muhammad and he was a descendant of the Imams of the Faith").
To the implicit question of why, if the Bab had been the Imam, he was rejected and executed, Baha'u'llah draws his correspondent's attention to the rejection and persecution suffered by the Prophet Muhammad in Mecca. As he was later to do in the Book of Certitude at greater length, he examines the promises in the Qur'an that believers would attain, on the Judgment Day, a meeting (liqa') with God. Since Babis believed the judgment day to be a symbol for the advent of a new prophet, this argument was intended to legitimate the doctrine of the Bab as a theophany, such that believing in him was analogous to 'meeting' God. Baha'u'llah also maintains that the idea of bodily resurrection in the Qur'an should be taken figuratively to refer to spiritual awakening, and that "life" as used in scripture often also refers to the life of the spirit. In this vein, Baha'u'llah interprets figuratively as a reference to the Bab the prophecy in Revelation 1:14-16 that a figure would come whose eyes were as a flame of fire, whose feet would be brass, and in whose mouth was a sword. He was clear-sighted, his feet were steadfast, and his utterance was a sharp sword that divided the people into believers and unbelievers.
In the garden of bewilderment Baha'u'llah complains of his sufferings at the hands of the jealous, and quotes from the Ibnu'l-Farid's "Poem of the Way" on the tribulations of the prophets. The city of nothingness is that of fana', the Sufi term for annihilation of the base self, so that one forgets oneself and thinks only of God. For some Sufis this stage was the highest that could be attained. 'Attar says of it, "Here you are lame and deaf, the mind has gone;/ You enter an obscure oblivion!... Whoever sinks within this sea is blest/ And in self-loss obtains eternal rest." Although this was the last of Attar's valleys, however, it is clear that he does not think this self-annihilation the highest stage of mystical evolution. He, like some other Sufis, affirmed the continued existence (baqa') of the individual human self, and posited that after annihilation one attained eternal consciousness. He says the thirty birds had realized that the most they could ever attain mystical insight into was their own selves, and had then entered annihilation or fana' ("they were lost like shade before the sun"). But thereafter the birds regain consciousness, seeing "That after Nothingness they had attained/ Eternal Life, and self-hood was regained." In the Seven Valleys, Baha'u'llah had conflated the two stages of annihilation and eternal existence, saying that the valley of nothingness "is the dying from self and the living in God (fana'i az nafs va baqa'i bi'llah)." Here he separates out the two, speaking of the next stage as the city of eternal life (baqa'). He says of one who reaches it that "he seeth no extinction, either for himself or for any other soul." The sun in this realm is always at high noon. Finally, the seeker advances to the city with no name. This is a mystical stage of ineffability, a site of consciousness where words become wholly inadequate to describe it in any way. Baha'u'llah, even in pointing toward this station, is making a claim to have experienced it and its mysteries.
The contemporary situation
Despite its concern with abstract issues such as stages on the mystic journey toward God, Gems of the Mysteries does supply a few clues to the contemporary situation of the Babis in Baghdad. First of all, Baha'u'llah from the very inception of this work says that he cannot speak freely because his enemies are watching him: "In these days, the hounds and jackals of the land have surrounded Me." We know that in July, 1860, a new Iranian consul, Mirza Buzurg Khan Qazvini, had been appointed in Ottoman Iraq, and that this man had a special animus against the Babis. He joined forces with the prominent Shi'ite cleric, Shaykh 'Abdu'l-Husayn Tihrani, in an attempt to curb Babi activity in Baghdad and its environs. He did succeed in making life difficult for Baha'u'llah and others, but failed to secure the co-operation of either the local Ottoman governor or of the leading Shi'ite jurisprudent, Shaykh Murtada al-Ansari. Anything Baha'u'llah said that might indicate a claim to high religious authority could only fuel charges of heresy against him.
Baha'u'llah at one point complains about the Babis in Baghdad who stole, drank, and committed murder. This was a criticism of such figures as the Babi schemer Sayyid Muhammad Isfahani (not to be confused with the recipient of Gems of the Mysteries, and probably implicitly of Baha'u'llah's half-brother Mirza Yahya Subh-i Azal, as well. Azal was by this time widely acknowledged in Iran as the vicar of the Bab, though he was so reclusive that he exercised little real leadership, and there was less support for him in Baghdad. Baha'u'llah in this period was attempting to avoid a public split with Azal, but had been disgusted by several of the latter's actions in the 1850s, especially by his call for the murder of Mirza Asadu'llah Dayyan, a disciple of the Bab or Letter of the Living who had, in 1855-56, put forth claims to be the Babi messiah promised by the Bab, "He Whom God Shall Make Manifest." A zealous partisan of Azal murdered Dayyan in 1856, even though Baha'u'llah had by then succeeded in convincing him to withdraw his claims (Dayyan decided to give his allegiance to Baha'u'llah instead). Some of Baha'u'llah's own partisans, such as Mulla Baqir of Qumshih, also occasionally became involved in faction-fighting with Shaykhis or other Babis, resulting in injuries or deaths that the authorities laid at Baha'u'llah's doorstep. Baha'u'llah also criticizes the tendency among Babis (and Sufis) to go beyond theophanic doctrines and to actually claim to be God incarnate; rather, he insists, the human station always remained distinct from the divine. Again, this may be a reference to such figures as Dayyan.
Azal and his partisans remained uncomfortable with Baha'u'llah's charisma and his willingness to write authoritatively on Babi doctrine, which they thought the prerogative of the vicar of the Bab. Baha'u'llah, on the other hand, believed that after the Bab's death the only station of leadership was that of Mirrors, the many persons who reflected the virtues of the Bayan. He presented himself and acknowledged Azal as such Mirrors, but he did not believe any Mirror, including Azal, was supreme. An eyewitness, Dahaji, wrote that some Babis in Baghdad considered Azal the sun and Baha'u'llah the mirror, whereas others saw Baha'u'llah as the sun and Azal as the mirror. As we have seen, Baha'u'llah did inform a handful of trusted friends that he had a special station. Nabil-i Akbar, when he embraced Baha'u'llah around 1859, likened the Babi leadership at that time to the situation in early Islam from a Shi'ite point of view. In the early Islamic caliphate, 'Umar wielded worldly power (umur-i zahiri), as Azal then did, while 'Ali remained in charge of explaining divine realities, as Baha'u'llah then was. Since Shi'ites thought 'Umar an usurper, the analogue speaks volumes about the views of Baha'u'llah's partisans in Baghdad circa 1859.
In an 1861 letter to Zaynu'l-Muqarrabin, Baha'u'llah again refers to keeping a messianic secret. He says that he has worn coarse, camel-hair robes and kept himself out of the limelight, "so that I might not become known by any name or make any impression, even though the seas of pre- eternity (qidam) are by the grace of God flowing in My heart; but not a drop thereof is manifest. And the scriptures of meaning are concealed in My breast, though not a letter thereof is to be seen in the Tablets." Claims to pre-eternal, which is to say, divine knowledge, and to having scriptures (suhuf) inscribed in his breast, clearly indicate Baha'u'llah's increasing sense of himself as an independent Manifestation of God. This letter may have been written around the same time as Gems of the Mysteries.
An explicit central leadership, Baha'u'llah thought, would only be restored with the advent of the Bab's promised one, He Whom God Shall Make Manifest. We now know, of course, that Baha'u'llah declared himself to be this awaited figure in April, 1863, and it seems likely that works such as Gems of the Mysteries and the Book of Certitude were intended in part to pave the way for this declaration. It was a dangerous thing to contemplate. The Bab had been executed by the state, and Azal had had Dayyan murdered, for making a similar claim. Somewhat puzzlingly, Baha'u'llah twice uses the words "subh" or "morning" and "azal" or "eternity" in juxtaposition with one another in Gems of the Mysteries. He might have simply been employing these terms in their ordinary senses. Or he might have been referring to Azal in a formalistic manner, so as to mollify his partisans and avoid provoking another Babi schism before it was necessary. Or he may have been using the phrase ironically, reclaiming it for his own spiritual insights and denying it as an exclusive property of Mirza Yahya. It seems to me that given the extreme attention to language and nuance characteristic of Babism that the first possibility, that the phrase was used without any overtones of any sort, is rather unlikely.
On the other hand, He Whom God Shall Make Manifest was a powerful lever against Azal's pretensions to supremacy, and Baha'u'llah emphasizes the doctrine in the Gems. When discussing the metaphorical realm of Jabulqa', where the hidden Imam was said to have been, he says, "He Whom God Shall Make Manifest now dwelleth therein, until such time as God shall cause Him to appear in the station of His Sovereignty." A little later he adds, "Those who affirm the oneness of God will see, at the second Day of Resurrection, that He Whom God Shall Make Manifest will descend with this city from the heavens of the Unseen, in the company of chosen, exalted angels. Blessed is he that attaineth His presence and winneth an audience with Him. We are, one and all, longing to meet with Him, and We all maintain this hope. We say, 'Praise be to Him, for He is the Eternal Truth, and we are all turned toward Him.'" By emphasizing the future divine sovereignty of the Babi promised one, Baha'u'llah was laying a groundwork for his own authority when he felt the time was right to announce his claim.
Gems of the Mysteries represents a transition in Baha'u'llah's writing, from the Tablets composed in an explicitly Sufi style in the late 1850s upon his return from Kurdistan, to the doctrinal concerns of his late-Baghdad and Edirne periods. Although he explains concepts such as love, self-annihilation, and eternal life, as heritages from Sufi mysticism, he departs from the concerns of the Seven Valleys in a number of ways. He suggests strong limits to the ability of even a mystic to transcend him- or herself. This insistence on the survival of the individual ego even after the rapturous nothingness of self-annihilation or fana' aims at fighting incarnationism among the Babis. For it was widely held that one who experiences this annihilation is then filled with the Godhead. The many claimants to the status of independent theophany in Babism led Baha'u'llah to this denial of divine immanentism. He sets aside prophets as special and higher sorts of Manifestation of God, and begins exploring the idea of the theophanic unity of the High Prophets.
Baha'u'llah here also for the first time quotes from the New Testament and demonstrates an interest in Christianity as a way of relativizing Islam. That is, the universe of discourse among many nineteenth-century Iranian Muslims tended to be closed and self-contained, as well as to rest on a literalist approach to scripture. Baha'u'llah reached out to the Gospels as a way of demonstrating to Muslims that, were they to insist on such literalism, they could hardly blame Christians for rejecting Muhammad. But once a symbolic interpretation of Jesus's minor apocalypse was accepted as valid, then the gates were flung open to a similar exegesis of Muslim texts, whereby the truth of the Bab's claims could be substantiated in a way they could not in a literalist discourse. He suggests that only a symbolic approach to past scripture, whether that of Christianity or of Islam, can make sense of the eschatological prophecies therein. These themes are all taken up at much greater length in the Book of Certitude.
Finally, he lays great stress on the importance of He Whom God Shall Make Manifest. He was most likely writing only two or three years, after all, before he was to make his announcement that he was that figure, in the Garden of Necip Pasha (Ridwan) outside Baghdad. In this light, his citation in Gems of the Mysteries of verses by Ibnu'l-Farid about the tribulations of the prophets may well have been intended as an early hint that he considered himself one of their number:
"My weeping maketh Noah's flood to seem like teardrops from above;
The flames surrounding Abraham are as the passion of my love;
A distraught Jacob hath disclosed the least of my deep miseries,
And all Job's trials are a small part of my own calamities."