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Introduction by Alison Marshall 

Audio:

As the title suggests, this work is a commentary on a verse of poetry written by the major Persian and Sufi poet, Mushrif-ud-Din Abdullah Sa'di (1184-1283/1291?). It is not known when Baha'u'llah wrote the commentary, but translator Juan Cole estimates, from the language used in the work, that it was in the late 1880s.

The lines of poetry commented on are from Sa'di's book, The Rose Garden (Persian: Gulistan). It is made up of eight parts, each with stories and sayings. The lines in question are from section 2, story 11. It begins:

"I spoke in the cathedral mosque of Damascus a few words by way of a sermon but to a congregation whose hearts were withered and dead, not having travelled from the road of the world of form, the physical, to the world of meaning, the moral world. I perceived that my words took no effect and that burning fire does not kindle moist wood. I was sorry for instructing brutes and holding forth a mirror in a locality of blind people. I had, however, opened the door of meaning and was giving a long explanation of the verse, 'We are nearer unto Him than the jugular vein', 'til I said:

'The Friend is nearer to me than my self
But it is more strange that I am far from him
What am I to do? To whom can it be said that he
Is in my arms, but I am exiled from him.'"

The verse that Baha'u'llah discusses in his commentary is the first two lines of the poetry above: "The Friend is nearer to me than my self/ But it is more strange that I am far from him". As Sa'di indicates, these lines were inspired by a verse from The Qur'an, 50:15, which reads: "We are nearer to him than the jugular vein." The point Sa'di is making in the poetry is that, although Muhammad assures us that God is nearer to us than the jugular vein, nevertheless we remain far from God.

In the second paragraph of the commentary, Baha'u'llah begins discussing his central theme, which is an elucidation on the concepts of spiritual nearness and distance. He opens with a point that alludes to a fundamental principle of Baha'i theology. This principle is that God's essence cannot be known or described by human beings, and that the attributes we usually attribute to God, such as creating and loving, apply only to the manifestations of God. Assuming that his reader knows this, Baha'u'llah says that it makes no sense to speak of God ("the Absolute Truth") as being near or far from anything. These concepts have meaning only in relation to the manifestations.

Baha'u'llah explains that the human heart is created to be God's "seat" or home within us, an idea also found in the following saying from Muhammad: "The heavens and the earth cannot contain Me, but the heart of My believing servant can contain Me." Despite this, people's hearts are occupied with the things of this world and not with God. When this happens, a person is said to be 'distant' from God. But when a person is occupied with God, that person is 'near' to God. In fact, people can forget about themselves, but despite this God continues to know them and God's radiance remains visible in them. From this, it follows that God is always near to us and it is only we humans that do the coming and going.

The commentary contains some interesting enigmatic statements; for example, in paragraph three, Baha'u'llah says: "Every soul that has quaffed the most pure, the most glorious Wine has ascended to the zenith of nearness and union. Without that, they would be on the lowest rung of remoteness and separation, even though they might at every moment utter the mention of the All-Merciful and act according to His commands. For today, the diverse communities that exist upon the earth, since they are deprived of the Wine of divine unity, are all wandering in the desert of remoteness."

I understand Baha'u'llah to be saying that those who have turned to him ("quaffed ... the most glorious Wine") can be said to be near to God. This is because Baha'u'llah is the latest person to manifest God. Everyone who has not drawn near to God by drawing near to Baha'u'llah is therefore distant from God, even though they mention God everyday and obey the commands of their scripture. The various communities on earth, by not recognising Baha'u'llah, have not understood the important concept of divine unity - that all the manifestations are one - and are therefore not walking the straight path. Baha'u'llah follows this with a restatement of the idea that closeness and distance to God is found in closeness and distance to the manifestation of God. When a new manifestation appears, that person is the latest manifestation of the name of God, "the Near", and this new reality encompasses creation. The people therefore draw near to God by drawing near to this reality each time it is newly manifested as part of a new revelation.

Baha'u'llah goes on to make the important point that "spiritual closeness is prior to and more near than physical proximity". What this means is that a person might live physically near to the manifestation but in fact be distant because the person lacks spiritual closeness. Adib Taherzadeh suggests that an example of such a person was Mirza Aqa Jan.1 He was Baha'u'llah's amanuensis for forty years and, as such, was physically close to him for a long time. However, this exceptional favour eventually went to Mirza Aqa Jan's head and he lived out the last years of his life in disgrace. On the other hand, a person might live a long distance from the manifestation and yet be near due to that person's spiritual closeness.

In the final paragraph, Baha'u'llah states that a person who visits him out of sincerity has performed a deed equal to all the good deeds of the past and present. In fact, he goes further and says that such a person "will be the recipient in all the infinite worlds of the grace and recompense of this action". But even more favoured is a person who visits Baha'u'llah and recognises his station as a manifestation of God. This person has attained to the promise in The Qur'an that, in the Day of Resurrection, the believers will meet God. In surah 13, verse 2, for example, Muhammad says: "He ordereth all things. He maketh His signs clear that ye may have firm faith in attaining the presence of your Lord." Baha'u'llah discusses at length the meaning of 'attaining the presence of God' in The Book of Certitude.

Notes

[1] Adib Taherzadeh: The Revelation of Baha'u'llah. Akka, The Early Years, 1868-77 (Oxford: George Ronald, 1983) p 404.

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