Introduction by Alison Marshall
Surah of the Companions is a long letter Baha'u'llah wrote to Aqa Munib Kashani, asking him to tell the Babis living in Iran about Baha'u'llah's claim to be Him Whom God Will Manifest; that is, the Promised One of the Bab. The tablet was written while Baha'u'llah was living in Edirne, and is one of the most important public announcements Baha'u'llah made at that time.
Historian and translator, Juan Cole, in his introduction to the Surah of the Companions, explains the historical background to the tablet :
"Baha'u'llah was exiled to Baghdad in Ottoman Iraq in early 1853, after having been imprisoned on false charges of involvement in the Babi attempt on the shah's life... Baha'u'llah's growing popularity in the early 1860s caused many pilgrims from Iran to seek him out in Baghdad when they visited the shrines of the Imams in Najaf and Karbala. This development annoyed the Iranian government, which put pressure on the Ottomans to exile Baha'u'llah farther away from Iran.
The Ottomans acquiesced and decided to send him to Edirne from Baghdad, as is apparent from documents in the Ottoman archives, … and so his brief stay in Istanbul in fall of 1863 had been intended to be only a stop-over. In winter of late 1863, Baha'u'llah settled in … Edirne… It is impossible to date with complete certainty the Tablets or letters Baha'u'llah wrote back to Iran announcing his mission publicly, but my best guess is that they date to around winter, late 1865 and early 1866. They certainly precede, and in fact helped provoke, the discord between Baha'u'llah and Azal [Mirza Yahya]."
Baha'u'llah's half-brother, Mirza Yahya (Mirza Yahya Subh-i Azal) was nominated by the Bab to be the leader of the Babi community after the Bab's death. However, when the Bab was martyred in 1850, Mirza Yahya kept himself hidden from the community because of the ongoing persecutions the community faced from the authorities. In this leadership vacuum, community members were drawn to Baha'u'llah because of his charismatic personality and inspired writings. Mirza Yahya became envious of this and, in retaliation, secretly passed on misinformation about Baha’u’llah to the authorities. Eventually, a complete split between Baha'u'llah and Mirza Yahya came in Edirne, after Baha'u'llah announced publicly that he was Him Whom God Will Manifest. In making this claim, Baha'u'llah was saying that he was the manifestation who the Bab promised would come after him. Baha'u'llah was also asking the Babis to recognise him and to bear allegiance to him and his new religion. This was a direct challenge to Mirza Yahya and a threat to his position as the appointed leader of the Babi community. Throughout the Surah of the Companions, Baha'u'llah warns Kashani to beware the Babis who bear allegiance to Mirza Yahya.
Juan Cole gives some background on the recipient of the Surah of the Companions, Aqa Munib Kashani:
"[Surah of the Companions] was written for Aqa Munib (or Munir) Kashani (d. 1868). Kashani, from a prominent merchant family of Kashan, was nearly killed by his father for becoming a Babi, but instead [was] expelled from the household. Kashani went to Baghdad and, in 1858-59, Baha'u'llah sent him as a courier to Tehran, Qazvin and Tabriz, to which he carried missives from Baha'u'llah and Azal. While still in Baghdad, Aqa Munib was informed by Baha'u'llah of his claims [to be Him Whom God Will Manifest] and accepted them. Kashani accompanied Baha'u'llah to Istanbul in 1863, holding a lamp before his howdah at times. Baha'u'llah sent him back to Iran from Istanbul some time between August and November, 1863. My own conclusion is that it was in the winter-spring of 1865-66 that Baha'u'llah sent Aqa Munib Kashani the Tablet of the Companions. Kashani was then in Tehran, and [Kazim] Samandar says [Kashani] was the first to make known Baha'u'llah's assertion that he was He whom God shall make manifest in that city. From there, he took or sent the surah to Qazvin, where it provoked immediate tumult, according to Kazim Samandar, an eye-witness ." 
Baha'u'llah begins the surah by addressing Aqa Munib Kashani from the "throne" with the verses of God and asking him to turn to his Lord with everything in him and proclaim the Cause. He assures Kashani that he will be empowered to do this even if everyone on earth attacks him with swords. Baha'u'llah confirms that Kashani knew before everyone else the secret about Baha'u'llah being the Promised One and points out what a bounty this was for him: "By God, the Eternal Truth! The chalice of joy could contain nothing better than what we have ordained for you."
Baha'u'llah then begins to tell Kashani about the people who oppose Baha'u'llah. The tablet contains a lot of detail on this topic. Baha'u'llah describes his opponents' injustice and behaviour and the effect this has on him and the inhabitants of the next world, and he outlines the arguments they use to reject Baha'u'llah and the answers Kashani should give in response to them. Baha'u'llah is helping Kashani to understand what he will be up against when he tells others about Baha'u'llah's claim and to prepare him for how to deal with it. Many paragraphs begin with the word "Say". In these passages, Baha'u'llah is telling Kashani what to say to those he comes in contact with.
The essential criticism Baha'u'llah makes of his opponents is outlined at the end of paragraph 3: "Then gaze with a seeing eye on those who claim, 'In truth, we have believed in the verses of God, the Protector, the Mighty, the Powerful.' But when these verses were revealed yet another time in his name, the Exalted, the Omnipotent, the Most Great, behold, they fled from him, showed pride toward him and demonstrated a hypocrisy greater than that of any previous people." This argument is very important and is one of the central themes of the Baha'i revelation. Baha'u'llah expands on it at length in two other works, the Gems of the Mysteries and the Book of Certitude.
The point Baha'u'llah is making is that people claim to believe in God by believing in a particular manifestation of God; in this case, the Bab. Then God tests their claim to faith by sending another manifestation who is a different person with a different name; in this case, Baha'u'llah. When Baha'u'llah says, "I am the return of the Bab", the people oppose him and accuse him of heresy. They do not recognise that Baha'u'llah is the return of the Bab. This proves that they didn't actually recognise the Bab at all and that their claim to faith was hypocrisy. If they had truly recognised the Bab, they would have known his spiritual realities, not just his name and physical characteristics, and immediately recognised these spiritual realities in Baha'u'llah.
At the beginning of paragraph 5, Baha'u'llah tells Kashani, "You shall find that our opponents have clung to the same arguments as did the people of the Qur'an in the past." Again, this point is very important and Baha'u'llah expands on it in the Book of Certitude. The argument he is making is that, no matter what manifestations throughout history you identify, the people denied them for the same reasons. The process of rejection outlined above happens each time a manifestation appears and the arguments made against the newcomer are always, in effect, the same. However, Baha'u'llah goes on in paragraph 5 to say that the Babis stooped to new lows in their rejection. Here, he is saying that, although their arguments are in essence the same as before, nevertheless they were accompanied by the highest degree of iniquity.
In the second sentence into paragraph 6, Baha'u'llah makes another very important point: "All else besides me has been created by my decree, if you are among the seeing. Say: Do you grow haughty toward him who made your names manifest and your ranks exalted?" Baha'u'llah is referring here to his station and power as a manifestation of God. Elsewhere, he explains that human beings can never know the essential reality of God. He likens this reality to a realm of fire: "For He dwelleth in the ark of fire, speedeth, in the sphere of fire, through the ocean of fire, and moveth within the atmosphere of fire. How can he who hath been fashioned of contrary elements ever enter or even approach this fire? Were he to do so, he would be instantly consumed." Because of this, God raises up the manifestations in creation to act as representatives of the Divine. To all intents and purposes, the manifestations are 'God' to us, because we can never get any closer to God than them. Therefore, we should think of all the attributes of God, such as the Creator and the Sovereign, as belonging to the manifestation and not just to God. This is why Baha'u'llah says: "All else besides me has been created by my decree." He is saying that, in his capacity as God's representative, all of creation has been created by him, except the reality of his own self, which was raised up by God.
Baha'u'llah then admonishes his opponents, "Do you grow haughty toward him who made your names manifest and your ranks exalted?" He is pointing out to them that they exist only because of Baha'u'llah. It is Baha'u'llah's reality as the manifestation that is behind their existence as well as the fact that they are spiritually blessed. He is underlining the irony of their denying, and even opposing, the one by whose grace they exist at all. At the beginning of paragraph 7, Baha'u'llah points out that no created thing has the standing to question him, that all are humbled before his all-encompassing and all-pervasive sovereignty. He has "within his throat" words that would compel everyone to recognise him and acknowledge his sovereignty, if he chose to speak them.
Throughout the surah, Baha'u'llah accuses his opponents of joining partners with God. To join partners with God means to worship another god besides God. In the Qur'an, joining partners with God is said to be the one sin that cannot be forgiven: "Lo! Allah forgiveth not that a partner should be ascribed unto Him. He forgiveth (all) save that to whom He will. Whoso ascribeth partners to Allah, he hath indeed invented a tremendous sin." (Qur'an 4:48) Baha'u'llah accuses his opponents of this offence because they refuse to recognise that he is the latest representative of God. Instead, they recognise another person as the legitimate representative of God and give their allegiance to that person. The problem is that there can be only one representative of God on earth at any one time. Therefore, if Baha'u'llah is legitimately acting in that role, then anyone else who claims to be God's representative and anyone who bears allegiance to that person is guilty of joining partners with God. 
In paragraph 8, Baha'u'llah calls out again that he is the Promised One that everyone has been expecting: "By God! This is, in truth, he whom you have sought from the beginning that has no beginning." He makes it clear that anyone who does not recognise who he is has shown that they never recognised any of the previous manifestations: "Do you think within yourselves that, if you deny these verses, your faith in any of the former Messengers of God, even in `Ali (the Bab), can be credited? No, by the Lord of the Worlds! Behold, you are given the lie by all the atoms, and beyond them by the tongues of power, might, glory and grandeur, and beyond all these by the tongue of God, the Omnipotent, the Almighty, the All-Wise."
In paragraph 9, Baha'u'llah goes back to addressing Aqa Munib Kashani and giving him guidance on delivering the message. He illustrates the method of delivery using the delightful imagery of Kashani lifting the hem of a veil ever so slightly to reveal what's beneath it. This imagery of lifting a veil is everywhere in the writings. It alludes to what, at the time, would have been an outrageous and scandalous act - that of a man lifting a veil to reveal the face of a woman. By telling people about Baha'u'llah's proclamation, Kashani is lifting a veil and revealing the beauty of Baha'u'llah to the world. As can be expected, the act of lifting a woman's veil would cause an immediate uproar, and Baha'u'llah is telling Kashani to expect the same reaction when he makes known Baha'u'llah's claim. He is to bide his time behind the curtain of beauty and patience until the commotion dies down and then try again.
Towards the end of paragraph 9, Baha'u'llah tells Kashani to "extend the fingers of might and power from the cloak that we bestowed on you before the creation of all things". Baha'u'llah's use of the word "cloak"; is probably an allusion to the biblical story of Joseph's richly ornamented coat, which his father, Jacob, had made for him (Genesis 37:3). The time "before the creation of all things" is a reference to pre-existence. Baha'u'llah is saying that he ordained in pre-existence that Kashani would share Baha'u'llah's announcement to be the Promised One. As a manifestation of God, Baha'u'llah has knowledge of all that has happened and will happen. We ordinary humans do not have the knowledge of pre-existence that Baha'u'llah has, but we do have a memory of pre-existence, which is an inherent part of our souls. For example, in the Garden of Justice, Baha'u'llah refers to the moment in pre-existence when we swore our allegiance to God: "Say: O people, be faithful to the covenant of God, and break not the pact to which ye swore in the world of pre-existence, in the Presence of God, the Mighty, the Glorious, the All-Knowing."
In the penultimate sentence of paragraph 11, Baha'u'llah states that "his proof is his being". That means that the very existence or person of the manifestation is itself the proof of who he is. In fact, in a passage from Gleanings, Baha'u'llah goes so far as to say that the person of the manifestation is his greatest proof: "He Who is everlastingly hidden from the eyes of men can never be known except through His Manifestation, and His Manifestation can adduce no greater proof of the truth of His Mission than the proof of His own Person."  Baha'u'llah makes a similar point when he says in paragraph 33: "Say: By God, the Eternal Truth, glory lies not in revealing verses and the like. Rather, glory lies in my manifestation between the heavens and the earth, among the divers peoples of the world, if you have eyes to see."
In the penultimate sentence of paragraph 12, Baha'u'llah refers to his manifestation as "God's self-manifestation" and goes on to ask: after the very self of God has been manifested, how can anything in the heavens or earth be of any benefit to anyone? The idea that Baha'u'llah manifests the self of God may appear to contradict the fundamental principle of Baha'i theology that the essence of God - that fiery reality - cannot be manifested in creation. But Baha'u'llah is not claiming that. Rather, he is emphasising the fact that his manifestation is the most potent and greatest manifestation of God that creation has ever seen. With Baha'u'llah's revelation, God is manifested in the Greatest Name of God. The Greatest Name in Arabic is "Baha'", which in English means "glory". In the Book of Certitude, Baha'u'llah explains that the manifestations have two aspects to them: a spiritual and a historical. When we look at them from the point of view of their spiritual reality, they appear as one because they all come from one source and do the same spiritual work. However, the degree to which they manifest God's attributes differs. "They only differ in the intensity of their revelation, and the comparative potency of their light. Even as He hath revealed: 'Some of the Apostles We have caused to excel the others.'" (Qur'an 2:253)" 
Between paragraphs 14 and 27, and in paragraphs 38 and 43, Baha'u'llah names people that Kashani should consider approaching with the news of Baha'u'llah's mission. Juan Cole gives the background to some of these people:
"Baha'u'llah instructs Kashani to tell others of his declaration only with extreme caution. He does, however, suggest persons whom Kashani ought to approach, by addressing them in the letter. Several of these had met Baha'u'llah in Baghdad, but had not formed any particular allegiance to him, such as 'Rahim,' who had written to Baha'u'llah from Tehran, or 'Zaman,' to whom Baha'u'llah had earlier sent letters containing hints of his station. ('Servant, read what we revealed to you aforetime, and smell in its ink the fragrance of musk from the tresses of the divine Beloved.') It seems clear that Baha'u'llah is capitalizing on a network of acquaintance and correspondence, hoping to mobilize these Babis into a loyalty to him. One of those addressed, Ibn Nabil, appears to be from a family that adopted Babism and then reverted to Islam, and Baha'u'llah now reaches out to regain such fallen-away Babis for his cause. The new believers in Baha'u'llah are instructed to bear all persecution patiently (for now it would come, not only from Muslims, but from partisans of Azal, as well)." 
Baha'u'llah refers to a couple of dates in the surah, which need explaining. In paragraph 20, he says: "By God, he who appeared in the year 60 is manifest once more." The number 60 refers to the year 1260 on the Islamic calendar, which is 1844 on the Gregorian calendar. It is the year in which the Bab declared his mission. Baha'u'llah is therefore saying that the Bab has appeared again. In paragraph 30, Baha'u'llah says: "Say: People, in truth, I am that 'good' you were promised in the year Nine." Here, Baha'u'llah is referring to a passage in the Bab's Persian Bayan where he says: "In the year nine ye will attain unto all good."  The "year nine" refers to the ninth year of the Babi calendar, which began when the Bab declared in 1844. The ninth year is 1853, which was the year in which Baha'u'llah made a private declaration of his mission to his friends and family. Baha'u'llah is saying that he is the "good" that the Bab promised would appear in the year nine.
The last topic that should be mentioned in this introduction is that of detachment. The concept of detachment is one of the most important concepts in Baha'u'llah's revelation. In many passages throughout the surah, Baha'u'llah admonishes his followers to detach themselves from everything except him. By this, he means for them to focus their whole hearts and souls on him and on serving him and to forget everything else. One striking statement that Baha'u'llah makes about the power of detachment is in the penultimate paragraph of the surah: "By God, the true victory is your detachment from all else besides God and your steadfastness in my love in this day." This illustrates the link between detachment and focusing on one's love for Baha'u'llah. In a couple of places in the surah, Baha'u'llah emphasises the importance of loving him. He says that it is the "balance" - that is, the measure by which right and wrong are determined: "Say: By God, the balance is nothing other but love for me" (paragraph 14).
 Kazim Samandar: Tarikh-i Samandar va Mulhaqat (Tehran: Baha'i Publishing Trust, 131 B.E./1974), p. 228
 Baha'u'llah: Gems of Divine Mysteries (Haifa, Israel: Baha'i World Centre, 2002) paragraph 110
 For a discussion on the concept of joining partners with God, see Alison Marshall: Commentary on the Divine Unity
 Baha'u'llah: Garden of Justice
 Baha'u'llah: Gleanings from the Writings of Baha'u'llah, section XX
 Baha'u'llah: Book of Certitude, (Wilmette, Illinois: Baha’i Publishing Trust, 1989) p 104, paragraph 110
 Baha'u'llah: Epistle to the Son of the Wolf, (Wilmette, Illinois: Baha'i Publishing Trust, 1988) p 141
For further discussion of the Surah of the Companions, see:
- Juan Cole: Baha'u'llah's Surah of the Companions (Surat al-ashrab). Introduction.
- Adib Taherzadeh: The Revelation of Baha’u’llah. Adrianople, 1863-68 (Oxford: George Ronald, 1977) pp 65-106.
For a short biography of Aqa Munib Kashani, see Abdu'l-Baha: Memorials of the Faithful translated by Marzieh Gail (Wilmette, Illinois: Baha'i Publishing Trust, 1971) pp 145-147.