Introduction by Alison Marshall

Ode of the Dove (alternatively, Ode of the Nightingale) is a poem of 127 verses, which was written by Baha'u'llah while he lived in Sulaymaniyyah. It is a mystical work based on the style and form of Ibn al-Farid's famous "Poem of the Mystic’s Progress".

History

In late 1852, Baha'u'llah was imprisoned in the Tehran dungeon known as the Siyah Chal during a wave of violence against the Babi community.[1] The persecution began after a small group of Babis reacted to the government's execution of the Bab by attempting to assassinate the shah. While Baha'u'llah was in prison, he experienced the first of many visions he had of the celestial woman, or houri, who was to bring him his revelation. Describing that first vision, he says that he heard a sweet voice above him and, when he looked up, he saw a celestial woman in the air in front of him. She was so full of joy that her soul shone and her cheeks glowed. She pointed to his head and called to everyone in heaven and earth, saying: "By God! This is the Best-Beloved of the worlds, and yet ye comprehend not. This is the Beauty of God amongst you, and the power of His sovereignty within you, could ye but understand."[2] Baha'u'llah wrote the poem Sprinkling of the Cloud Beyond Being about these visions and their spiritual significance.

When Baha'u'llah was released from prison and exiled to Iraq in early 1853, he settled in Baghdad and began acting on his intention to rebuild the Babi community. This intention was inspired by the visions of the houri that he'd had in prison. By this time, the Babi community was dispersed and demoralised. It had suffered the tragic loss of its prophet, the Bab, and many of its prominent members in the massacre by the Iranian government, and was without an effective leader. It was understood that the Bab had appointed a successor, Subh-i Azal, but he was in hiding and failed to provide the rallying point the community desperately needed.[3] Further uncertainty was generated by the fact that the community eagerly anticipated the appearance of 'Him Whom God Will Manifest'; that is, the prophet that the Bab promised would come after him. During the upheaval following the Bab's martyrdom, several Babis claimed to be the Promised One and the community formed factions around these individuals.

Baha'u'llah's efforts to reform and rebuild the community resulted in tension between himself and Subh-i Azal. Like many Babis, Subh-i Azal, who was behind the attempt to assassinate the shah, believed that the Bab meant to establish a Babi state in Iran. However, Baha'u'llah encouraged the Babis to abandon political goals and to focus on effecting a spiritual transformation in the world instead. Baha'u'llah's enthusiasm for reform, charismatic personality and accessibility to the community were a threat and source of envy for the isolated and secluded Azal. Baha'u'llah did not want to be the cause of yet more division, therefore he decided to withdraw himself from the situation. Without warning, he suddenly left Baghdad and made his way to the town of Sulaymaniyyah in Iraqi Kurdistan, about 200 miles north-east of Baghdad. He lived in the area for two years (1854-1856).[4]

At first, Baha'u'llah lived as a hermit on the mountain of Sar Galu, about three days' walking distance from Sulaymaniyyah. He roamed its wilderness and lived in caves and a temporary shelter used by peasants, and infrequently ventured into Sulaymaniyyah for provisions. He concealed his identity and went by the name of Darvish Muhammad-i Irani. But the locals were curious about who he was. Over time, the local leader of the Naqshbandi Khalidiyyih Sufi order, Shaykh Isma'il, convinced Baha'u'llah to stay in the order's theological seminary, which was located in the town.

While Baha'u'llah was staying in the seminary, he betrayed himself to be no ordinary recluse when the Naqshbandis saw an example of his calligraphy, which he'd written for a disciple. At the time, the Sufis were studying the work "Al-futuhat al-makkiyyah" (Meccan Victories) by the famous mystic Ibn Arabi, and Shaykh Isma'il invited Baha'u'llah to participate and comment on the passages being studied. Baha'u'llah's commentary on the work impressed the shaykh so much that he challenged Baha'u'llah to write a poem modelled on the famous "Poem of the Mystic’s Progress" (Nazm al-suluk) by the great Egyptian Sufi poet Sharaf al-din 'Umar Ibn al-Farid (1182-1235 CE). Poem of the Mystic's Progress is 760 verses long and was Ibn al-Farid's longest and greatest work. In response, Baha'u'llah revealed in public a poem of 2000 verses. Of these, he allowed his audience to keep 127 verses, and these constitute Ode of the Dove as we know it today.[5]

When Baha'u'llah returned to Baghdad in 1856, he wrote some notes to clarify various allusions in the poem. Little is known about why Baha'u'llah did this. But a comment in the note to verse 117 suggests that he had been moved to answer criticism from opponents and explain misunderstandings. The passage reads: "But from the railing of this people, I believe that even after this explanation they will raise objections and by reason of self-delusion will become wayfarers on the path of vain imagination, error, idle fancy and blindness."

Poem of the Mystic's Progress

As explained above, Baha'u'llah's Ode of the Dove was modelled on Poem of the Mystic's Progress. Both poems are 'qasidahs'. A qasidah is a traditional form of Arabic poetry that dates back to pre-Islamic times. It is a long poem, which is why the word 'qasida' is usually translated into English as 'ode'. The New Shorter Oxford English Dictionary defines 'ode' as "a lyric poem, usually rhymed and in the form of an address, in varied or irregular metre and of moderate length". That captures the basic idea of the qasidah, except that it has strict requirements about metre and rhyme. Each stanza of the qasidah has two parts, each with identical metre. Common forms are the 'Tawil', which has 14 syllables in each part, and the 'Kamil', which has 15 syllables. In addition, the rhyme within the stanzas must be consistent throughout the poem. Metre and rhyme in classical Arabic poetry are explained in more detail later.

The narrative of the classical qasidah had three parts: in the first, the Bedouin reciting the poem stumbles on an empty campsite, laments his loneliness and describes his affection and desire for his beloved; in the second, he rides away from the camp, praising his camel and his people and recalling the dangers of the desert; and in the third, he praises himself or his tribe or tells the story of a battle. Although this three-part structure was typical of the classical qasidah, nowadays the term 'qasidah' can refer to almost any long poem. [6]

Ibn al-Farid's Poem of the Mystic's Progress is generally known as "The Greater Ode Rhyming in T" (Ta'iyyat al-kubra), which distinguishes it from another of his poems "The Lesser Ode Rhyming in T". In it, Ibn al-Farid addresses a disciple and describes in detail his spiritual journey from a state of wavering in his love for God to a state of complete union with God. Throughout the poem, God is depicted as a woman. The first 150 verses in particular sound similar to Baha'u'llah's Ode of the Dove. Here is Nicholson's summary of them:

"In the opening verses (1-7) Ibnu'l-Farid recalls a time when his love of God was still imperfect and unfixed, so that the 'intoxication' of ecstasy would be followed by the 'sobriety' of a relapse into selfhood.

He tells (8-83) how he sought the favour of the Beloved and related to her his sufferings, not by way of complaint – for suffering is the law of love – but in the hope of relieving them; how he said that he was enraptured by her beauty, that he would never change, that he cared for nothing but her and for her sake had abandoned all.

The Beloved answers (84-102), accusing him of insincerity and presumption. He is not really in love with her, but only with himself. If he would love her in truth, he must die to self.

In reply he protests that his death is his dearest wish and prays the Beloved to grant it, whatever pain it may cost (103-116). Then, addressing the disciple, he describes his dying to self and its effects: how it has brought him great glory, though he is despised by his neighbours and regarded as a madman; and how it has caused his love to be hidden even from himself, his faculties to be jealous of one another, and his identity to be lost, so that in worshipping he feels that he is the object of worship (117-154)." [7]

To illustrate the style of Ibn al-Farid's poem, here are verses 67 to 76, in which he describes the depth of his love for his beloved. Bear in mind that Nicholson's translation is a literal prose translation and that he made no attempt to capture the rhythm and rhyme of the original.

"(67) I swear by the firm pact of love between us, which was not alloyed with any imagination of annulment – and 'tis the best of oaths –
(68) And by thy taking the covenant of troth in a place where I did not appear in such a form that my soul was clothed in the shadow of my clay,
(69) And by the primal pledge that never was changed since I plighted it, and by the succeeding bond that was too solemn for any frailty to loose,
(70) And by the rising of thy radiant countenance, whose splendour caused all the full moons to become invisible,
(71) And by the attribute of perfection in thee, from which the fairest and shapeliest form in creation drew support,
(72) And by the quality of thy majesty with which my torment is pleasant to me and my being slain is sweet;
(73) And by the mystery of thy beauty, whereby all loveliness in the world is manifested and fulfilled;
(74) And by thy comeliness which captivates the mind and which guided me to a love wherein my abasement for thy glory's sake was comely;
(75) And by an idea in thee beyond comeliness – an idea which I beheld through itself, too subtle to be apprehended by the eye of perception:
(76) Verily, thou art the desire of my heart, and the end of my search, and the goal of my aim, and my choice and my chosen." [8]

Ibn al-Farid devotes much of the remainder of the poem to describing in detail the characteristics of his beloved and his experience of union with her. Nicholson's summary of the poem continues:

"After a hymn of praise to the Beloved (336-387), he resumes the description of his oneness. His spirit and soul, which formerly drew him up and down between them, are in reality one with the Beloved, ie, they are identified with Universal Spirit and Universal Soul, whence all forms of spiritual and sensible life are fed. … Continuing, he declares that the state which he has now reached is higher than 'union' (wisal). He gained it through casting aside every vestige of self-regard. It was he who imposed the laws of religion on himself and was sent as an apostle to himself before any prophet appeared in the world. His overruling influence is exerted throughout heaven and earth. He is beyond all relations: place, time, and number are gone; he has no rival or opposite; he is the object of his own worship. No change of state can now befall him… He is the Pole (Qutb) on which the universe revolves (441-501). … Ibnu'l-Farid, making himself one with the spirit of Muhammad, claims to be the father of Adam, the final cause of creation, and the origin of life: all creatures obey his will, speak his word, see with his sight; he is hidden in everything sensible, intellectual, and spiritual (575-650)." [9]

Here's a passage in which Ibn al-Farid extols the divinity of his beloved by describing how she is the one behind all existence and experience. Ibn al-Farid witnesses these qualities in her due to his union with her:

"(637) Do not deem that this matter lies outside of me, for none gained lordship (as a prophet or a saint) except he entered my service,
(638) Since, but for me, no existence would have come into being, nor would there have been a contemplation (of God), nor would any secure covenants have been known.
(639) None lives but his life is from mine, and every willing soul is obedient to my will;
(640) And there is no speaker but tells his tale with my words, nor any seer but sees with the sight of mine eye;
(641) And no silent (listener) but hears with my hearing, nor any one that grasps but with my strength and might;
(642) And in the whole creation there is none save me that speaks or sees or hears." [10]

Not surprisingly, Ibn al-Farid was accused of heresy for appearing to claim that God was in him. In his defence, it is argued he was simply claiming a union with God that enabled him to experience the tremendous power and glory of God. By contrast, Baha'u'llah in Ode of the Dove never claims to achieve this level of union with God. Throughout the poem, he steadfastly maintains a distinction between himself as the hapless lover and the unattainable divine beloved. This reflects Baha'u'llah's firm rejection of the idea that there is any relationship between the Essence of God and creation.

Metre and rhyme in Ode of the Dove

In Arabic poetry, verses are put together using feet, which are small units of sound. There are eight kinds of feet, each with its own particular number of syllables and places of stress. These feet are put together in various ways to produce verses of varying length and rhythm, which create the poem's metre.[11]

In classical Arabic poetry, there are 16 recognised metres. Each of these uses a particular combination of feet in a particular order. The metre used in Ode of the Dove is an "irregular catalectic tawil".[12] The tawil metre is made up of the following two feet:

'fa-tuu-lun' and 'ma-faa-tii-lun'.

These feet are represented here using the three consonants 'f', 't' and 'l'. If you look closely, you'll see these three letters in each foot. Ignore 'm' and 'n', which are used in Arabic for prefixes and suffixes. The three consonants have been combined with vowels, the prefix 'ma', and the suffix 'un' to indicate the right rhythm. I have indicated long vowels by writing the letter twice (eg, 'uu', 'aa' and 'ii'). You can see that the first foot has three syllables and the second one has four, making a total of seven.

Each verse or line in Arabic poetry has two 'half-verses'. In the tawil metre, a half-verse is made up of the two feet above, like this:

fatuulun mafaatiilun.

Because there are two half-verses in a line, a full line in tawil metre looks like this:

Fatuulun mafaatiilun, fatuulun mafaatiilun.

Finally, each verse has two lines, and so a verse in tawil metre looks like this:

Fatuulun mafaatiilun, fatuulun mafaatiilun
Fatuulun mafaatiilun, fatuulun mafaatiilun

This produces two lines each consisting of 14 syllables.

The metre of Ode of the Dove is an irregular 'catalectic' tawil. Catalexis occurs when a verse or line lacks a syllable in the final foot. But despite the irregularities, you can get a sense of how the ode is supposed to sound from the outline of the tawil metre shown above.

The rhyme scheme of Ode of the Dove is based on the repetition of the letters "ati" at the end of lines. This is the same rhyme scheme used by Ibn al-Farid. In theory, the two lines of each verse should rhyme in this way. Below is a transliteration of the first two verses of Ode of the Dove. I have bolded the letters "ati" at the end of the lines to illustrate how the rhyme works:[13]

Ajdhabatni bawariqu anwari tal`atin
li zuhuriha kullu'sh-shumusi takhaffati

Ka'anna buruqa 'sh-shamsu min nuri husniha
zaharat fi 'l-`alamina wa gharrati

Juan Cole's translation of these two verses is as follows:

I was enthralled by light rays from a face
Whose advent dimmed and darkened every star,
As though the sunbeams of her beauty's glow
Appeared and dazzled planets from afar.

Juan has translated the ode using an iambic pentameter metre. An iambic pentameter is a line of five feet, each foot consisting of an unstressed and then a stressed syllable, like this: ta Ta ta Ta ta Ta ta Ta ta Ta.

The translation is in quatrains - that is, four lines - rhyming in abcb.

I was enthralled by light rays from a face (a)
Whose advent dimmed and darkened every star, (b)
As though the sunbeams of her beauty's glow (c)
Appeared and dazzled planets from afar. (b)

Juan has translated the ode into English verse in an attempt to preserve something of the feel of the original. This feel is lost, for example, in Nicholson's literal prose translation of Ode of the Mystic's Progress, which is quoted earlier. The downside of translating the original in English verse is that it forces the translator to depart from the literal meaning to some extent.[14]

Overview of Ode of the Dove

Ode of the Dove is an important work of Baha'i scripture. It is thought to be the third major work that Baha'u'llah wrote - the other two being Sprinkling of the Cloud beyond Being and Tablet of all Food. The poem contains key information about Baha'u'llah's spiritual experiences in the early days of his ministry and his understanding of their significance. The key event at this time was the appearance of the Houri to Baha'u'llah in the Siyah Chal. Baha'u'llah's descriptions of her in Ode of the Dove tell us who she was and why her appearance was important. He describes her as the most exalted being possible - as the source of revelation and creation - which tells us that she was not only divine but Divinity itself. Her appearance was the appearance of God and meant the fulfilment of the Day of God and the beginning of the Baha'i revelation. After the Houri appeared to Baha'u'llah in the Siyah Chal, she continued to converse with him throughout his life. The record of their conversations constitute Baha'i scripture. The Qur'an, similarly, records the conversations between Muhammad and the Angel Gabriel.

Ode of the Dove consists of a five-part dialogue between Baha'u'llah and the Houri:
1. Lines 1-16 - Baha'u'llah introduces the Houri, describing her exalted characteristics and explaining that he has tried in vain to win her love.
2. Lines 17-36 - Baha'u'llah speaks directly to the Houri. He tries to win her by describing the pain he feels in his love for her.
3. Lines 37-61 - the Houri responds to Baha'u'llah. She rebukes him, explaining that none of those who claim to love her are worthy of her because she has such an exalted station. She tells him to die for her if he is true to his word.
4. Lines 62-97 - Baha'u'llah tells her that he is ready to die for her and describes what he has already suffered for her.
5. Lines 98-127 - the Houri responds, saying that she was aware of his sufferings but that they were not enough. She gives him guidance on how to proceed.

In the opening verses of the poem, Baha'u'llah introduces the Houri to the reader and alerts us to the fact that she is not just any old muse. In verses 1 to 3, he says that the light of her face darkens stars, her beauty lights up planets, her joy distributes the fragrance of God and the mere act of her standing up raises the Spirit. His description of her makes it clear that she is the one who ushers in the Day of Resurrection in the Day of God. Verse 4 tells us that her breath caused the end-time's trump to sound. This is a reference to the trumpet that would sound on the Day of Resurrection: "And there was a blast on the trumpet - lo! it is the threatened Day! And every soul is summoned to a reckoning - with him an impeller and a witness."(Qur'an 11:7) The Houri's breath also causes the shadows of the clouds to move. Baha'u'llah explains in the notes that the "shadows of the clouds" refers to Qur'an 2:210, where it is said that God will return in the shadows of the clouds. "To move" refers to Qur'an 27:88 and the idea that, on the Day of Resurrection, the mountains will move like clouds. In the Book of Certitude, Baha'u'llah provides a commentary on the imagery associated with the Day of Resurrection, and explains that the clouds, mountains and stars refer to the religious leaders of the past and the customs established in people's lives by earlier revelations. At the appearance of a new manifestation, these are wiped away.

Important clues to the Houri's station appear later on in part three, verses 41 to 51, when the Houri explains to Baha'u'llah who she is and why he can never win her. She tells him that her dawn turns the sun of revelation into a star and that pure light is only a gleam of light in the face of her brilliance. The secret of Being is as nothing beside the gleam of her soul and the bonfire Moses saw on Sinai was only a hint of the flames of her love. Her nature is the pattern on which human nature and religion is fashioned. Justice and the divine command were shaped by her wisdom. She stilled the ocean and animated the Holy Ghost. Her Cause quickened souls and her breath woke up the dead. All guidance originates from her Cause and is announced in the highest places in creation.

In verse 49, the Houri says: "The B of 'speak the secret' swooned before My Point!" In the notes, Baha'u'llah explains that this refers to the following tradition, attributed to Imam Ali [15]:

"All the Divine knowledge within the books of the prophets is contained within the Qur'an, and … all that is in the Qur'an is contained in the meaning of the opening Surah, the Fatihah. That which is in the Fatihah is itself contained within the opening phrase Bismillah ir-Rahman ir-Rahim [In the name of God, the Compassionate, the Merciful]. The secret of this phrase is hidden within its first letter, the letter 'B'. That which is within all and everything is in the diacritical point beneath the (Arabic) letter 'B' (ﺏ).

Baha'u'llah also tells us that the "Point" refers to the first form, being or word that God is manifested in - in this context, the Houri. Verse 49, therefore, is saying that the point under the letter B, which contains the secret in everything, swooned before the Point of the Houri.

Further underlying the theme of the Day of Resurrection is the imagery in verses 5 and 8 of Moses and his conversation with God in the burning bush on Mount Sinai. Exodus 3:1-6 describes what happened:

Now Moses was tending the flock of Jethro his father-in-law, the priest of Midian, and he led the flock to the far side of the desert and came to Horeb, the mountain of God. There the angel of the LORD appeared to him in flames of fire from within a bush. Moses saw that though the bush was on fire it did not burn up. So Moses thought, "I will go over and see this strange sight—why the bush does not burn up."

When the LORD saw that he had gone over to look, God called to him from within the bush, "Moses! Moses!" And Moses said, "Here I am." "Do not come any closer," God said. "Take off your sandals, for the place where you are standing is holy ground." Then he said, "I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob." At this, Moses hid his face, because he was afraid to look at God. (NIV)

In verses 5 and 8, Baha'u'llah draws parallels between the fire that Moses saw in the burning bush and the fire and light inherent in the Houri's being. In verse 5, he tells us that the Houri's gleam is the source of the fire in the burning bush and in verse 8 he says that her shining face gave Moses guidance and that her fire cleansed his soul. By drawing these parallels, Baha'u'llah is telling us that the Houri is the mysterious voice that spoke to Moses on that fateful day and, in doing so, influenced the religious history of humanity for millennia. Now, she has appeared again - to Baha'u'llah.

In the notes on verse 8, Baha'u'llah gives a detailed and difficult explanation of the spiritual transformation Moses underwent on the day God spoke to him. In simple terms, Moses takes off his sandals and is thereby purified of the physical world. He then enters the sacred city located in his heart. This is the place where he is able to converse with God and smell the perfume of the Spirit and witness God's light in all directions. God's essence ignites Moses's heart with the love of God and the divine unity. Moses sees an incomparable Countenance and drinks the pure nectar that cannot spoil. He longs to meet God and becomes aware of the city of everlasting life. He sees the fire of God and shines with God's light. He tells his family that he is going to investigate it. When he sees the image of the Houri, he receives guidance by witnessing her form and his face is honoured and glorified by this.

Baha'u'llah goes on in the last paragraph of his notes on verse 8 to explain that this description of Moses' transformation applies only to the human aspect of Moses in the phenomenal world. It does not apply to his divine station, which is pure abstraction and essential unity, and exalted above the influences of this world. All the manifestations of God have these two stations, human and divine. Baha'u'llah illustrates these two stations working within Moses by quoting from the Qur'an: "I did it indeed, and I was one of those who erred. And I fled from you when I feared you; but My Lord hath given Me judgment and hath made Me One of the Apostles." (Q. 26:20-21). The passage shows that the human aspect of Moses had committed manslaughter but, despite this, the divine aspect of Moses later spoke with God and was given a divine mission. In the Book of Certitude, Baha'u'llah discusses the two stations of the manifestations and the seeming contradiction in Moses being chosen as a prophet despite being guilty of manslaughter.

Further Sinaitic imagery is found in verse 46: "Immortal Moses swooned before My gaze; / My gleam destroyed the Sinai of all heights". As Baha'u'llah's notes confirm, this verse refers to the story in Qur'an 7:143, where Moses asks to see God:

When Moses came to the place appointed by Us, and his Lord addressed him, He said: "O my Lord! show (Thyself) to me, that I may look upon thee." Allah said: "By no means canst thou see Me (direct); But look upon the mount; if it abide in its place, then shalt thou see Me." When his Lord manifested His glory on the Mount, He made it as dust. And Moses fell down in a swoon. When he recovered his senses he said: "Glory be to Thee! to Thee I turn in repentance, and I am the first to believe."

The implication of verse 46 is that Moses swooned before the gaze of the Houri and it was her gleam that turned the mountain to dust.

Another major theme of the poem is the sufferings of Baha'u'llah. It runs throughout the poem as a contrast to the supremacy of the Houri's station. Baha'u'llah's two addresses to the Houri, in parts two and four, are allusions to what Baha'u'llah had been through: his imprisonment in Tehran, his exile to Iraq, the opposition he faced in Baghdad, and his flight to the region of Sulaymaniyyah. In verses 68 to 70, he describes being attacked by spears and the blade of rejection, being forced to deal constantly with unbelievers, being the subject of jeers, being accused of idolatry and being impaled on spears. In verse 81, he refers to his sufferings in the Siyah Chal: "And iron's scars can be seen on My neck; on My legs marks of fetters yet remain." In some verses, Baha'u'llah underlines the intensity and significance of his sufferings by likening them to the sufferings of prophets and chosen ones in history. For example, in verse 20, he draws parallels between himself and Imam Husayn: "By Husayn's sorrow! Emulating me, / the world-gyre is weighed down with agony". And in verses 72 to 75, he likens his sufferings to those of several well-known historical figures: Jacob, Joseph, Abraham, Job, Adam, Jonah, David, Noah, Eve, Mary, Isaiah, and Zachariah.

The poem builds to a climax in verses 87 to 97, where Baha'u'llah, after recounting his sufferings, flatly rejects the Houri's assertion that he loves an image of her created by his own imagination and not her real self. Instead, he claims to see her through her own eyes and says the traits he sees in her are truly there and not the result of his limited vision. "I saw Thy traits in My eyes' portraiture / through Thine eye's glance, which is sharp as a dart. If I had limits, they appeared from Thee; / If I had traits then they derived from Thee." As a reader, you feel relieved that Baha'u'llah has stood up for himself against the Houri's harsh criticism. Baha'u'llah goes on in verses 91 to 93 to express how his sufferings resulted in an ultimate experience of "the exalted light". He implies that, like Muhammad, he also experienced a 'flight' to Jerusalem and heaven, while he was living in Tehran, but interprets this experience as taking place within his own spirit and soul. Muhammad's spiritual night journey from Mecca to Jerusalem and then to heaven is described in the Qur'an, Surah 17. Muhammad flew on the back of an animal named Buraq, which had a woman's head and a peacock's tail.

In the note to verse 117, Baha'u'llah continues on with the theme of opposition. The note is 10 paragraphs long and constitutes a tablet in itself. In verse 117, the Houri chastises Baha'u'llah for forsaking her for his own idle fancies, and angrily points out that her Cause loses out because of them: "Thou dost forsake the Unseen's light, in what / Thou wreakest in thyself - and My works lose!" In fact, the chastisement is directed at humanity and its failure to recognise the manifestation. Baha'u'llah explains in the note: the effulgence of God ("the sun of Being, the moon of the Beloved and the Point of the Adored One") shines on the realities of all creation, giving them eternal life. But, despite this, humankind has shut itself away. In fact, Baha'u'llah complains, humanity is so shut off that "were a thousand Davids of Existence of serenade the dusty bones of mankind with psalmody and songs of beatitude in fresh and wondrous melodies, these latter would never stir nor move an iota." Humans must acquire the attribute of equity, he says, if they want to benefit from the bounty God has sent down.

In paragraph 5 of the note, Baha'u'llah explains that he wrote "these verses" of the poem - that is, verse 117 and the like - while he was in exile in Ottoman lands. He notes that no one "among the divines or eminent men of that realm made any protest or objection" to the way he had been treated. And he confirms that, now he is back in Baghdad and writing the notes, the "railing of the people" leaves him in no doubt that nothing has changed. Despite his explanation in the notes, people will still oppose him because they will read his writings with their own imaginings and not give him a fair reading. In paragraph 7, Baha'u'llah laments that his situation is so bad, he desires "not to remain in this kingdom even for a second". These comments indicate that, when Baha'u'llah returned to Baghdad and his poem was distributed widely, he encountered criticism about it, which lead him to write the notes of explanation.

In the final paragraph of the note, Baha'u'llah warns the believers about a certain person who was wrecking corruption in the land, and urges them strongly not to join him. Presumably, Baha'u'llah is referring to Subh-i Azal, who did a number of scandalous things while Baha'u'llah was away in Sulaymaniyyah; for example, he organised a second attempt on the life of the Shah, and married and then discarded a widow of the Bab. The Bab forbade his followers from marrying either of his widows. In the last sentence, Baha'u'llah counsels the believers not to distribute the sacred verses without permission. One of the reforms of the Babi community Baha'u'llah had tried to bring about was the use of 'wisdom' in spreading the Faith. He argued that the Babis should be careful about teaching their faith and distributing the Bab's writings, so that they did not agitate the civil and religious authorities and bring about even more persecution. [16]


[1] This historical account is largely based on Juan Cole: "Baha'u'llah and the Naqshbandi Sufis in Iraq 1854-1856" in Juan Cole and Moojan Momen (eds): From Iran East and West, Studies in Babi and Baha'i History, Volume 2, (Los Angeles: Kalimat Press, 1984) pp 3-9.

[2] Baha'u'llah: "Suriy-i-Haykal", in Summons of the Lord of Hosts. Tablets of Baha'u'llah (Haifa, Israel: Baha'i World Centre, 2002) para 7, p 6.

[3] For details on the appointment of Subh-i Azal as the leader of the Babi community and a short overview of Azal's life, see Peter Smith: A Concise Encyclopedia of the Baha'i Faith (Oxford: Oneworld Publications, 2000) p 53.

[4] I have also relied on the account given in Peter Smith: "The Babi and Baha'i Religions: From Messianic Shi'ism to a World Religion" (Cambridge University Press, 1987) pp 57-62. This account gives some detail of the tensions between Baha'u'llah and Subh-i Azal.

[5] For further accounts of the background to Ode of the Dove, see:
-- Adib Taherzadeh: The Revelation of Baha'u'llah. Baghdad 1853-63, (Oxford: George Ronald, 1974) pp 60-64.
-- Shoghi Effendi: God Passes By, (Wilmette, Illinois: Baha'i Publishing Trust, 1970) pp 113-124.
-- H M Balyuzi: Baha'u'llah. The King of Glory, (Oxford: George Ronald, 1980) pp 115-120.

[6] Much of the information in this paragraph about the qasidah comes from the paper The Muallaqa of Imru al-Qays and Its Translations into English, written and researched by Lady Pennywhistle. It is found at http://www.bbc.co.uk/dna/h2g2/A3994176. I also relied on Jonah Winters' essay  Themes of 'the Erotic' in Sufi Mysticism. This essay looks in depth at the qasidah and at Ibn al-Farid's Poem of the Mystic's Progress.

[7] R A Nicholson: Studies in Islamic Mysticism, (Cambridge University Press reprint, 1967) pp 195-6.

[8] R A Nicholson: Studies in Islamic Mysticism, (Cambridge University Press reprint, 1967) pp 206-7.

[9] R A Nicholson: Studies in Islamic Mysticism, (Cambridge University Press reprint, 1967) pp 197-8.

[10] R A Nicholson: Studies in Islamic Mysticism, (Cambridge University Press reprint, 1967) p 255.

[11] The information given here about metre in classical Arabic poetry is from G W Thatcher: Arabic Grammar of the Written Language, Hippocrene Language Series, (New York: Hippocrene Books, 1993) pp 332-7.

[12] Juan Cole: "Baha'u'llah and the Naqshbandi Sufis in Iraq 1854-1856" in Juan Cole and Moojan Momen (eds): From Iran East and West, Studies in Babi and Baha'i History, Volume 2, (Los Angeles: Kalimat Press, 1984) p 9 and footnote 22.

[13] The note here about the rhyme scheme is from Juan Cole: "Baha'u'llah and the Naqshbandi Sufis in Iraq 1854-1856" in Juan Cole and Moojan Momen (eds): From Iran East and West, Studies in Babi and Baha'i History, Volume 2, (Los Angeles: Kalimat Press, 1984) footnote 22.

[14] The transliteration of the first two verses of Ode of the Dove and the notes here about the English translation are taken from messages Juan Cole sent to the discussion list This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. in August 1995.

[15] John Baldock: The Essence of Sufism, (Hertfordshire, UK: Eagle Editions, 2004) pp 34-5.

[16] The comments in the last paragraph are taken from a message Juan Cole sent to the discussion list This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. 19 January 1996.

For an article about Ode of the Dove, see Juan Cole: "Baha'u'llah and the Naqshbandi Sufis" in Juan Cole and Moojan Momen (eds): From Iran East and West, Studies in Babi and Baha'i History, (LA, Kalimat Press, 1984) Vol 2, pp 1-28.