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Introduction by Alison Marshall

Surah of Sorrows was written between mid-1867 and mid-1868, which was the turbulent year prior to Baha'u'llah's exile from Edirne to Akka. The subject of the surah is the opposition Baha'u'llah faced from those who rejected his claim to be the Promised One of the Bab and the spiritual effect this had on him and the Cause. The introductory statement establishes this theme, stating that the tablet is an address from God to one who has turned toward God at a time when everyone else has turned to Satan. The addressee was Mirza Ali Sayyah, from the Iranian city of Maragheh, who was exiled to Cyprus at the time that Baha'u'llah was sent to Akka.

The surah opens in the first two paragraphs with Baha'u'llah telling Ali to enter the ocean of grandeur, an image found throughout Baha'u'llah's writings. The ocean of grandeur is like an infinite spiritual reality that came into existence through the revelation of Baha'u'llah's name 'the All-Glorious'. The best metaphorical depiction of the ocean of grandeur that I know of is found in paragraphs 25-27 of the tablet. In these three paragraphs, Baha'u'llah's imagery brings to life a realm that, even on a cosmic level, is staggering in its size and magnificence. Baha'u'llah tells us that the sea of pre-existence, including what runs out of it and into it – for example, the rivers of meaning and pearls of wisdom – constitute only a wave on the ocean of grandeur. On the shore of the sea of pre-existence is a wilderness that stretches to infinity in all directions, and in this "valley" the call of God is raised. The prophets and messengers roaming in the wilderness hear the call and congregate at the "Dome of the Most Glorious". They fall before "that Beauty" and submit to his authority. The call in that wilderness never ceases, and when we hear it on earth and follow it, we take up an existence in that cosmic place.

Baha'u'llah uses the image of the ocean of grandeur to create two distinct metaphors, which are intertwined in the text. The first metaphor is introduced with Baha'u'llah describing Ali as someone who is swimming in the spiritual realm of the divine unity; a little further on, in two places, he commands Ali to "plunge" into the ocean of grandeur. Having the opportunity to plunge into this ocean is a rare honour because, Baha'u'llah explains, most people are not even guided to its shore. The message behind the metaphor of plunging into the ocean is that Ali should abandon entirely the 'dry land' of humanity's petty, worldly concerns and, instead, become submerged in the spiritual reality of Baha'u'llah's cause. The second metaphor Baha'u'llah creates using the ocean of grandeur is of an infinite watery expanse on which sail the arks of salvation, which are boarded by souls when they become believers. Baha'u'llah uses the ark of salvation as a central metaphor for his Tablet of the Holy Mariner (see translations on this site).

In paragraph 3, Baha'u'llah commands Ali not to remain silent but to go out and tell everyone about Baha'u'llah's new revelation. In the following two paragraphs (4 and 5), he illustrates the sorts of things people will say in refutation of his call, citing two examples and providing responses to them. The statements are cryptic put-downs and do not amount to anything approaching serious argument: "Hath God become manifest, and hath the sun risen from the horizon of sanctity?" and "That is the one who utters falsehoods concerning God!" The first statement is disparaging irony; it is saying something like: 'This fellow Baha'u'llah is making an outrageous claim to be the Promised One, and yet, when I look around me, what evidence do I see of the truth of his claim? None, nothing has changed, no miraculous events have taken place. Who does he think he is? What a joke that he should be claiming to be the much-anticipated messenger of God!' The second statement answers the question in the first; it is a direct accusation that Baha'u'llah has made false statements about God. The style of these statements is echoed in a long passage Baha'u'llah subsequently wrote in Splendors, which he revealed in Akka. The passage runs over several pages and is made up almost entirely of a question and answer, or statement and response, format reminiscent of these paragraphs from Surah of Sorrows. To illustrate, here is an excerpt:

"And they say: 'Hath the Catastrophe come to pass?' Say: 'Yea, by the Lord of Lords!' 'Is the Resurrection come?' 'Nay, more; He Who is the Self-Subsisting hath appeared with the Kingdom of His signs.' 'Seest thou men laid low?' 'Yea, by my Lord, the Most High, the Most Glorious!' 'Have the tree-stumps been uprooted?' 'Yea, more; the mountains have been scattered in dust; by Him the Lord of attributes!' They say: 'Where is Paradise, and where is Hell?' Say: 'The one is reunion with Me; the other thine own self, O thou who dost associate a partner with God and doubtest.'"[1]

Baha'u'llah refers to those who reject him as "those who join partners with God". The thinking here is that, if Baha'u'llah is the new manifestation of God, what god do those who reject him worship? They must be worshipping partners to God.

At the beginning of paragraph 6, Baha'u'llah expresses regret that Ali was not present to witness Baha'u'llah reveal the verses of God. Some of those who did witness the way Baha'u'llah 'wrote' his tablets give accounts of a superhuman creativity.[2] Baha'u'llah did not sit down with pen and paper and work out the text in the way people usually do. His writings were produced in a state of pure inspiration that gripped his whole body and caused him to chant or speak the words at the speed of someone conversing. This trance-like state could last for hours and would leave Baha'u'llah exhausted. An amanuensis scribbled down the words Baha'u'llah spoke during these periods of revelation. He had a large pile of paper, 10 to 12 reed pens and a bowl of ink. Sometimes, the pen would fly out of his hand and he would grab another one and keep going. The result was a scrawl that only a handful of people could read. This was called 'revelation writing'. It was checked by Baha'u'llah, transcribed, copied and disseminated to the believers in various countries.

Paragraphs 7-9 of the surah contain a heart-rending lament by Baha'u'llah over the sufferings of the Bab. They make an excellent reading for the commemoration of the martyrdom of the Bab, which is observed at noon on 9 July each year. Following this (in paragraph 10), is a fascinating passage in which Baha'u'llah quotes the words of the Bab that were being spoken to him from the next world in response to his lament. In modern parlance, we might say that Baha'u'llah was acting as a medium, channelling the words of the Bab to this world from the next. Using Baha'u'llah, the Bab addresses Ali, Baha'u'llah's correspondent, and describes to him the scars that he (the Bab) bears on his spiritual 'body'. The Bab sustained these scars in the spiritual world at the same time that they were sustained in the physical world by Baha'u'llah, who the Bab refers to as "My later manifestation". Presumably, the scars referred to here are those that Baha'u'llah sustained from the heavy chains placed around his neck, hands and feet while he was imprisoned in the Siyah Chal. The Bab grieves over the way the Babis have been treating Baha'u'llah. His mourning mirrors in style and tone Baha'u'llah's initial lament for the Bab. This similarity of speech, coupled with the reality that the Bab bears the same scars borne by Baha'u'llah, underpin the Baha'i teaching that, from the point of view of the divine unity, the manifestations are the same person. Finally, in paragraph 11, Baha'u'llah takes heed of the fact that contingent beings and existent things have been overwhelmed by these sorrowful accounts, and tells his Pen to have mercy and change its theme.

In paragraph 12, Baha'u'llah returns to his initial theme and counsels Ali not to allow the sufferings of the Bab and Baha'u'llah to stop him from telling people about the new revelation. He tells Ali to examine and grasp the hypocrisy of the position held by those who have rejected Baha'u'llah, and then appears to describe the essence of it: they establish their rejection of Baha'u'llah using verses that Baha'u'llah himself revealed to the Bab; moreover, when Baha'u'llah reveals verses even greater than these and others that have previously appeared, the opposers still reject them and, where possible, attempt to kill anyone who repeats them. In paragraph 13, Baha'u'llah highlights the futility of their position using images that point to the ultimate nature of his reality: "Do ye idly dispute with Him, by virtue of Whom the suns shone forth, the moons were illumined, the stars were embellished, rivers flowed, oceans billowed forth, the sky was raised aloft, the earth of holiness was spread out, and the trees brought forth their fruit?"

In paragraph 14, Baha'u'llah alludes to two attempts by his half-brother Subh-i Azal (Morn of eternity) to have him killed. After the martyrdom of the Bab, Azal did all he could to distance himself from the Babis in order to protect himself from persecution. This is why Baha'u'llah describes Azal as one who "fleeth from foxes and hideth his face behind earthen jugs in fear of himself". Ustad Muhammad Ali Salmani, Baha'u'llah’s barber, reports in his memoirs that few of the believers who accompanied Baha'u'llah from Baghdad to Istanbul knew who Azal was.[3] Things changed in Edirne when Baha’u’llah began openly declaring his claim to be the new manifestation and distributing tablets announcing his claim throughout the region. Azal's response was to plot against Baha'u'llah in order to regain what he believed was his rightful position as leader of the Babi community. Baha'u'llah's assertion that Azal "consulted one among My servants about accomplishing My murder" is a reference to Azal's veiled suggestion to Salmani, Baha'u'llah's barber, that he kill Baha'u'llah with a razor. While Salmani was attending Azal at the public bath, Azal told Salmani the story of a young Babi who had stabbed the governor of Nayriz at a public bath (the governor was responsible for the deaths of Babis). Azal then complained that Baha'u'llah was harming the Cause by making claims to be the Promised One of the Bab and that someone should be brave and stand up to him, for Baha'u'llah was an usurper and Azal an innocent victim.[4]

Azal's other attempt to kill Baha'u'llah was to poison him. There are two historical accounts of how the poisoning was carried out, both of which agree that it occurred after Azal had invited Baha'u'llah over for tea, ostensibly to improve relations between them. Baha'u'llah's family were concerned about the possibility of poisoning, but Baha'u'llah felt obliged to accept the invitation in order to keep up appearances. Baha'u'llah was seriously ill for one month and nearly died. His symptoms included bleeding from the mouth, severe pains, high fever, a bluish-leaden hue, and shaking in his hands. Baha'u'llah's brother, Mirza Musa Kalim, says that Azal smeared the poison on a teacup that Baha'u'llah drank from.[5] Baha'u'llah's daughter, Bahiyyih Khanum, says that Azal had the poison added to Baha'u'llah's rice.[6] Whatever the method, what is not in doubt is that Mirza Musa Kalim had an excellent knowledge of medicines and had taught Azal about them at Azal's request. After Baha'u'llah's long illness, the followers of Azal accused Baha'u'llah of attempting to kill Azal; that is, they said that Baha'u'llah attempted to incite the barber to cut the throat of Azal with a razor, and had poison placed in rice intended for Azal, but which Baha'u'llah ate from. Baha'u'llah alludes to these accusations in the last sentence of paragraph 14 when he says: "He attributed things to me..."

Paragraph 15 begins with the voice of God telling the Pen to report something that "one of Satan's party" had said in Baghdad. It is not known who Baha'u'llah is referring to, but one can safely assume that it is a person who supported Baha'u'llah's half-brother, Subh-i Azal. The statement that this person made, which Baha'u'llah tells us made God very angry, is paraphrased by Baha'u'llah in the following words:

"O People of Baha! Why do ye teach the Cause of God, your Lord, and call the people to God, who created all things by His command? For the utmost rank the servants can attain is that of Azal. Since he steppeth down from his station and faileth to seize what he hath been given, how will your teaching and recitation profit God's servants?"

The suggestion is that the Babi religion has become impotent because the rank of Azal, the highest rank a person can hold, has not been taken up by the person to whom it was given by the Bab. The result is that teaching and prayer are now fruitless. The title 'Azal' means 'eternity' and the person referred to as holding it is Baha'u'llah's half-brother, whose given name was 'Yahya'.[7] The Bab gave him several exalted titles, including 'Subh-i Azal' (Morn of Eternity), Mir'atu'l Azaliyya (Everlasting Mirror) and Ismu'l Azal (Name of Eternity).[8] The statement makes several dubious theological assumptions, but a key one is that the name 'Azal' is higher in station than the other names of God. This assumption is vehemently rejected by Baha’u’llah, who argues against it in many tablets.

In paragraphs 16-22, Baha'u'llah directly addresses the author of the statement, his principal purpose being to refute the theological assumptions made about the station of Azal. The overall tone is reproachful, as Baha'u'llah finds fault with the addressee's views and character. Baha'u'llah mixes into his exposition the odd aside and comment that call attention to the addressee's misguided ideas, and refers to him as, among other things, ignorant, inequitable, blind and foolish. He points out that Azal is not the person the addressee imagines him to be, for if the addressee actually saw Azal and recognised him, he would flee a thousand miles from him. It seems that the addressee had met Azal when he was young, for Baha'u'llah refers his being a witness to the fact that Baha'u'llah raised Azal and educated him. It is certain, however, that Azal would have changed a great deal during the many years he spent disguising himself and leading secret lives. Baha'u'llah also includes a comment about the poor parenting the addressee had received from his father, saying that he had taught his child ideas that turned people into fools.

The substance of the argument regarding the name 'Azal' centres on the way that the names of God function in the realm of spiritual reality. Baha'u'llah teaches that God is sanctified above all attributes. However, it is only through God's attributes that we can know God. For this reason, we must look to the Person of the manifestation to know God, because the Person of the manifestation is the dawning-place of God's attributes:

"The Person of the Manifestation hath ever been the representative and mouthpiece of God. He, in truth, is the Day Spring of God's most excellent Titles, and the Dawning-Place of His exalted Attributes." (Baha'u'llah: Gleanings, XXVIII)

God's attributes include characteristics like seeing, hearing, creating, sovereignty, and the names of God are the names of those attributes: seer, hearer, creator, sovereign.[9] These names and attributes originate with the manifestation, who acts like a mirror, reflecting the spiritual realities to all created things. The essence of each created thing also acts like a mirror, in turn reflecting the names and attributes of God. In the case of humans, it is the soul that reflects these spiritual capacities. In paragraph 16, Baha'u'llah explains that the names of God were created so that they might point to their creator, and that the excellence in a person comes about when that person's soul turns to God. The idea here is that, when a person turns to God, the rays of the divine attributes shine out clearly from their soul, for there is no obstruction between the source of the divine rays and the soul's reflective face. [10] This idea is spelled out at the end of paragraph 19, where Baha'u'llah explains that the mirrors must "enter into the shadow of their Lord" - that is, turn toward God - so that they can receive the effulgence emanating from the Sun of Immortality (ie, Baha'u'llah) and become illumined by its lights and radiance. If they do not, they will be deprived of its bestowals and "remain bereft". Given this system of reflected attributes, one can readily see Baha'u'llah's point that a person's excellence is not an inherent quality in the person but a reflection of the divine - the result of that person turning toward God.

Continuing the argument in paragraph 16, Baha'u'llah adds two other important ideas: the first is that all the names were created equal, and the second is that God is the one who gives and takes away. The point that Baha'u'llah is making is that just because his half-brother was named 'Azal' does not mean that he is better than those with other names. He is still subject to God's decree, and God can 'take away' the grace of the name from him. The name is not an inoculation against moral corruption; such a fate can befall anyone with any name. This is why Baha'u'llah says: "Explain, O thou wretch, how it is that Dayyan could become abased, if no one else could?" Dayyan was a Babi who made a claim to be the Promised One of the Bab and who, consequently, was killed on Azal's orders.[11] Baha'u'llah accuses his addressee of being one-eyed because he can see the faults of others but not his own. A person who thinks like that has fallen under the influence of Satan and is an object lesson for others.

At the beginning of paragraph 18, Baha'u'llah gives another example of how God 'takes away'. In this case, he refers to "the stone" that the people were commanded to circumambulate - this is the Black Stone, a cornerstone of the Kaaba in Mecca, which Muslims circle as part of their pilgrimage ritual. Baha'u'llah says that God has "divested its form of the robe of acceptance, and bestowed this grace upon another Spot". He is referring to the fact that God has taken away the favour bestowed on the Black Stone and bestowed it on the house of the Bab in Shiraz and the house of Baha'u'llah in Baghdad, the two landmarks that are central to Baha'i pilgrimage.[12] The point is that God does as God pleases, and does withdraw favour from things the community holds as sacred as well as from revered leaders. Hence, just because Azal was considered a leader of the Babi community, does not mean he cannot have that favour taken away. In paragraph 20, Baha'u'llah points out that when the Bab appeared, "the divines who flourished in this world and mounted the stages of mystical insight, worshipping God night and day, were declared idolaters and unbelievers, and had the cloak of faith torn from about their shoulders". Therefore, it is not appropriate for the servants of God to say: "If they who built up the religion of God ... were consigned to hellfire, then how shall we ever attain an exalted station?" Baha'u'llah appears to be saying that the spiritual downfall of religious leaders does not automatically rule out the possibility of salvation for rank-and-file believers. Applying this to the above-quoted statement of the addressee, the prayers and teaching of believers do profit them, whatever the fate of Azal.

In paragraph 21, Baha'u'llah restates his general point, explaining that God is able to transform a handful of clay into a manifestation of God that reflects all the names and attributes of God. In fact, such a thing is easy for God. But that handful of clay would benefit from those favours only so long as it turned toward God or, put another way, remained under God's shadow. If it turned away, the favour would be withdrawn and it would go back to being no more than a handful of clay.

In the remainder of the tablet, Baha'u'llah again addresses his correspondent, Ali Sayyah, advising him to stay away from those who support Azal and continue spreading the word about the new revelation. He tells Ali that he has been singled out for a favour that few on earth share and encourages Ali to experience fully the happiness and blessings associated with it. The entire last paragraph is a description in lyric prose of the changes Baha'u'llah's revelation has generated in the world and everything upon it.


[1] Tablets of Baha'u'llah, p 118. Baha'u'llah also included this passage in his final work, Epistle to the Son of the Wolf, pp 131-134.

[2] For detailed discussion about the revelation process, see Adib Taherzadeh: The Revelation of Baha'u'llah. Baghdad 1853-63 (Oxford: George Ronald, 1974) pp 21-29.

[3] Ustad Muhammad Ali Salmani, My Memories of Baha'u'llah, translated by Marzieh Gail (Los Angeles: Kalimat Press, 1982) p 27: "As for Azal, not one of the believers really knew him." This comment refers to when Baha’u’llah was in Mosul on his way to Istanbul.

[4] Ibid pp 50-51.

[5] Shoghi Effendi, God Passes By (Wilmette, Illinois: Baha'i Publishing Trust, 1970) p 165.

[6] Bahiyyih Khanum, narrative in Myron Phelps, The Master in Akka, (Los Angeles: Kalimat Press, 1985) pp 40-41.

[7] In Baha'i literature, he usually referred to as 'Mirza Yahya'.

[8] See the entry "Azal, Subh-i" in Peter Smith, A Concise Encyclopedia of the Baha'i Faith (Oxford: Oneworld, 2000) p 53.

[9] The term "most beautiful names" is found in Qur'an 17:110: "Call upon God or call upon the All-Merciful; by whichever name you call him, his are the most beautiful names." According to Islamic tradition, God has 99 such names.

[10] The action of turning toward God is witnessed by others in that person's moral behaviour toward others.

[11] Azal was angry that Dayyan had made a claim that threatened his own position as leader of the Babi community and ordered a servant to kill Dayyan.

[12] For security reasons, Baha'is are currently unable to perform pilgrimage at these houses; therefore, they visit the holy places in Haifa and Akka instead. For details on Baha'i pilgrimage, see Tablet of Pilgrimage to the House of the Bab, Shiraz and Tablet of Pilgrimage to the House of Baha'u'llah, Baghdad.

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