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Introduction by Alison Marshall

Audio: (Note: In the audio, the tablet is given the incorrect title of Tablet of the Lover and the Beloved.)

Tablet of the Nightingale and the Owl is a short story, which reads much like a fairy tale. It was written by Baha'u'llah when he was living in Edirne (Adrianople), sometime after he broke off relations with his half-brother, Mirza Yahya (Subh-i-Azal). Historian, Adib Taherzadeh, has suggested[1] that the reference in the tablet to the artificial nightingales being expelled from the divine garden could be interpreted as referring to Baha'u'llah's separation from Mirza Yahya.

Throughout his writings, Baha'u'llah refers to himself as the divine Beloved and to the believers as his lovers. In this tablet, he symbolises the divine Beloved as a spiritual Rose of perfect beauty and the believers as nightingales, who long for the beauty of the Rose. In the middle of the tablet, Baha'u'llah illustrates how misunderstandings develop and harden between people, by telling the story of the crow and the nightingale. This is a story within a story and, in this second story, Baha'u'llah plays the role of the nightingale.

Baha'u'llah begins the tablet by wasting no time getting to the point, that all is not well in the divine garden. The Rose has appeared but the nightingales are not interested. He appeals to them to unite with him, but the problem is that they are not real nightingales, just artificial ones. They don't recognise their Beloved and argue that he isn't the real Rose, which, they say, originated from Medina not Iraq. The Rose doesn't mince words, informing the nightingales that their argument proves that they've never, in fact, recognised the Rose at all. "Rather, you recognised walls, rafters and buildings." He explains that he isn't from any place in particular; instead, he comes from different places at different times. This is a key principle of Baha'u'llah's teachings, which is commonly referred to as the 'oneness of the prophets'. Briefly, it states that the prophets are, from a spiritual point of view, the same person, even though they appear to humanity at different times and places. Baha'u'llah accuses the nightingales of being crows "who have learned to mimic nightingales" through their blind obedience - the implication being that their religious life looks the part but isn't the real McCoy.

The Rose tells the artificial nightingales that they are like the owl, as it is depicted in the following story. The owl once told the nightingale that crows sing more beautifully than the nightingale. The nightingale asks for the chance to prove that this isn't true, suggesting that both he and the crow sing so that their songs can be compared. But the owl refuses this request, saying that he once heard a beautiful melody in a garden and asked around for what made the sound. Others told him it was a crow, and the owl decided this must be true for he happened to notice a crow fly out of the garden soon after he'd heard the sound. Ignoring the nightingale's protests, the crow becomes confirmed in his conclusion. He challenges the nightingale: if the nightingale made that sound, why hasn't he become famous for it? The nightingale explains that he was a victim of the hunter's tyranny and that he and his song have been hidden.

The tablet reverts back to the Rose addressing the artificial nightingales, counselling them not to allow an obscure idea that they've picked up from somewhere to become a certain truth. Instead, they should listen to the Rose himself and not worry about things like the place he originated from. Suddenly, a real nightingale arrives and tells the artificial ones that, although they are nightingales in form, they've been hanging out with crows for so long that they've become like them. He tells them to fly away, that the divine garden is a place for real nightingales only.

In the final paragraph, Baha'u'llah ends with general advice for the "human nightingales". He exhorts them to properly investigate who their real Beloved is and to do what they can to protect the divine garden and the world from his enemies. The way to do this is through manifesting good deeds and character, which will prove that the accusations of enemies are just slander. If, however, the enemies do witness a wrong committed by one of the lovers, all "must return to the most holy abode", so that only those wrong actions will vindicate the slanderers.

[1] Adib Taherzadeh: The Revelation of Baha'u'llah. Adrianople, 1863-68 (Oxford: George Ronald, 1977) p 243. A full discussion of the tablet is on pages 241 to 244.

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