Bahá’u’lláh’s Early Mystic Writings: Changes Conversations, Enriches Spiritual Growth, and Deepens Understanding of Bahá’u’lláh as the Heart of the Bahá’í Faith
The April 2015 Wilmette Institute course Bahá’u’lláh’s Early Mystic Writings was an eye-opening experience for learner Bernardo Kerr, who hails from Nottingham in the United Kingdom (the same Nottingham with links to the Robin Hood legend). He enjoys walking, theology, films, and music and is now working on a PhD in theology at the University of Nottingham. Eye-opening is not comprehensive enough. He tells us that, from the learnings in the course, he has improved his reading skills and his ability to draw out themes from the Bahá’í writings; has come to understand (a bit) the place of Bahá’u’lláh’s mystic writings in His life and works; has gained a new understanding of the importance of historical studies, which he now sees as complementing and expanding one’s study of the Bahá’í writings; has come to a “deepened cognizance of the absolute centrality of Bahá’u’lláh at the heart of the Bahá’í Faith”; has made himself ask whether he would have recognized Bahá’u’lláh in the past or would he recognize the future Manifestation of God; has found ways to use Bahá’u’lláh’s mystic writings in his PhD program; and, in addition, has come to see how the learning from the course informs his conversations and enriches his spiritual growth.—THE EDITORS
By Bernardo Kerr
“During this course [Bahá’u’lláh’s Early Mystic Writings] I have mostly improved my reading skills and my ability to draw prevalent themes from the Bahá’í writings. It has helped me improve in scholarly methods of studying the writings by looking at correspondences between texts and the context in which they were written.
“Perhaps the most crucial insight I gained from the course was an understanding (albeit only a glimpse) of the place of the mystic writings in Bahá’u’lláh’s life and body of works. I had never looked at these writings quite as systematically or chronologically as I did with the help of the course materials. Many of the tablets were also new to me, so reading their provisional translations really helped to flesh out the context of those more well-known early writings.
“It seems that many of these tablets were written at a time when the sun of Bahá’u’lláh’s revelation was still dawning, reaching through the shadows into certain receptive hearts and not yet in its full noonday splendor. It strikes me that in these dawning rays He is proving the purity of the Source of His light by revealing His divine understanding of particular themes of significance to specific people and groups before He revealed His full world-embracing message to the entirety of humanity, with the Kitáb-i-Aqdas, the tablets to the kings and rulers, the Kitáb-i-‘Ahd, and other later writings. The Kullu’t-Ta’am, for example, addresses the questions of a particular Bábí on a line from the Qur’an, writing on the four worlds of God, which would have been well known to His audience at the time. Without explicitly revealing His station the recipient was able to recognize Him. Similarly, the Seven Valleys and the Four Valleys speak in terms well known to the Sufis, and the Tafsír-i-Hurúfát-i-Muqatta‘ih is replete with alchemical references, while all three refer to Bahá’u’lláh’s station only in veiled allusions.
Meanwhile, all of these early writings make evident the perfection of the Unknowable Source from which they came and thus serve as a perfect foundation for the writings revealed in the decades that followed. While Bahá’u’lláh revealed many principles, laws, and administrative ordinances that were explicitly and clearly worded, these early tablets perhaps attest most importantly to the depth of His mystery and the inexhaustible fountain of meaning from which these unambiguous signs of guidance, which would shape social reality with their boldness, would be distilled. These writings make clear that the fullness of the revelation to come was not from a human source, of learned wisdom and knowledge of manmade laws, but from a Source inherently bestowed with an omniscience beyond human comprehension.
“The overriding feeling experienced throughout the course was the sense of Bahá’u’lláh’s ineffably mysterious relationship with God and the centrality of this relationship to His writings and to the Bahá’í Faith as a whole. Reading the Rashh-i-‘Amá, glimpsing the context in which it was revealed and reading some of the descriptions of the moments when He received revelation, brought a new depth to my love for Bahá’u’lláh, as a Manifestation of God, Who walked this earth and shed with perfect brilliance His light. This added a new degree of vividness to the rest of the course and to my understanding of His station and His Cause.
“I think that one of the most important insights this feeling brought was into the love Christians have for the person of Christ and the profound appreciation they have for His physical existence in history. To me this seems to be a crucial component in discussions with Christians and something that need not be lost to Bahá’ís simply because we recognize that the sun does not itself come down to earth when it is reflected in the perfect Mirror. This has, in turn, deepened my own appreciation for the study of history as the stage on which the Message of God is revealed through His Manifestations.
“This was unexpected on my part, as I have in the past struggled to find the same joy in the study of history as I have in the study of the timeless mysteries found in scripture and in mystical texts. It is interesting and quite wonderful that, by studying the kind of Bahá’í writings to which I am more instinctively drawn, I have found other areas opened up that previously I had not found quite so inviting and that seemed before to be in some way contrasting with the more mystical and poetic writings. But this is, of course, the nature of Bahá’u’lláh’s revelation—that it reveals unity in diversity and shows the complementarity of seemingly disparate aspects of God’s creation.
“It might seem like an obvious belief to hold, but what the above realizations have crystallized is a newly deepened cognizance of the absolute centrality of Bahá’u’lláh at the heart of the Bahá’í Faith, which is itself my own deepest heart, no matter how often I might fall short in my stumblings toward its standards and duties. Essentially it is the sense that these early writings give of the immeasurable perfection of their Source that has really brought that understanding into focus and instilled in me a recognition of just how infinitely exalted Bahá’u’lláh was above all human attainment.
“This made clear two incredibly important thoughts. First, that we have a duty to wholeheartedly and joyfully accept the absolute authority of anything God reveals through His Messenger for this age. To the extent that ‘Were He to pronounce water to be wine or heaven to be earth or light to be fire, He speaketh the truth and no doubt would there be about it; and unto no one is given the right to question His authority or to say why or wherefore. . . . Were He to pronounce right to be wrong or denial to be belief, He speaketh the truth as bidden by God. . . . Were He to pronounce the right to be the left or the south to be the north, He speaketh the truth and there is no doubt of it” (Ishráqát in Tablets of Baha’u’llah 108, 109). So, although I may have already been striving to do this, it is very important to actually understand that this is, indeed, what I am striving to do.
“Second, this new appreciation raised a thought in my mind, that perhaps the most important question we need to ask ourselves is whether we would have recognized Bahá’u’lláh and, even though there will not be another for at least one thousand years, whether we would recognize and accept the future Manifestation of God. In the notes to his translation of the Rashh-i-‘Amá, Ramin Neshati refers to a passage from Bahá’u’lláh in which He explains that the ‘word that will prompt the believers to repel Him’ is ‘the changing of the “He” into “I” in the Quranic phrase “He is He”, yielding the phrase “I am He”’. Would we repel the Manifestation of God? Would our hearts be pure enough to accept Him and be detached from the outer aspects of religion? Evidently it is not merely a matter of following every explicit law—or, rather, it is, but we have to understand that those laws are infinitely deeper and more challenging than we can grasp, and our task is to follow them ever more deeply and more sincerely. We would need to be utterly humble, never considering ourselves to have achieved what God has ordained as our duty, or else we would be preferring our understanding over God’s infinite wisdom. This was really made apparent to me by seeing that in these early writings Bahá’u’lláh reveals how much deeper His revelation and His station are than the laws that we can grasp. He revealed them in language that we could comprehend so that we could live by them, but these early scriptures attest to the infinite depth of His Mystery.
“Everything studied in the course, from the tablets themselves to the excellent complementary material will be immensely useful in my PhD work. I will draw heavily from these writings and will make great use of the provisional translations the course has directed me to. I do hope to complete a shorter paper on the themes on which I had intended to write for my Personal Learning Plan—namely, paradox and tautology in the early mystic writings and the role of these mysterious aspects of scripture in the greater body of Bahá’u’lláh’s revelation.
“Aside from these academic pursuits, the learning that has come from this course will continue to inform my conversations and enrich my spiritual growth.”