Dr. Moojan Momen, Wilmette Institute faculty and a well-known Bahá’í author, posted in the course he is teaching The Writings of the Báb 2016 the comments below about the Báb’s Qayyúmu’l-Asmá’ (His commentary on the Súrah of Joseph, the first chapter of which He revealed on the night when He declared His mission to Mullá Husayn on May 22, 1844). We found Moojan’s comments so interesting, informative, and beautifully expressed and such a useful overview of the Báb’s book that we asked Moojan for permission to publish them in the Wilmette Institute’s eNewsletter, a request to which he graciously agreed.—THE EDITORS
by Moojan Momen
The following is an attempt to convey something of the impact of the Qayyúmu’l-Asmá’ on those who first read it, the Muslim world, or more specifically the Shi‘i Muslim world, or even more specifically those of the Shi‘i Muslim world who were learned, the ‘ulamá, and who would be able to read such a book. What impact would it have had on Mullá Husayn Bushrú’í, the other Letters of the Living, and the members of the Shaykhí community who were the first to be exposed to it? The following are just a few points to try to explain this impact.
- The structure and language of the Qayyúmu’l-Asmá’ matches or parallels that of the Qur’an:
The Qur’an is in Arabic and has 114 Súrahs, divided into verses, with some Súrahs starting with disconnected letters.
The Qayyúmu’l-Asmá’ is in Arabic and has 112 Súrahs, divided into verses, with some Súrahs starting with disconnected letters.
Much of the text of the Qayyúmu’l-Asmá’, reiterates, paraphrases, or mirrors much of the text of the Qur’an. Thus, although formally the Qayyúmu’l-Asmá’ is a commentary on one Súrah of the Qur’an, within each chapter many other passages of the Qur’an are interwoven into the text and paraphrased, and thus their “true” meaning is drawn out. And so the Qayyúmu’l-Asmá’, as well as being a commentary on the Súrah of Joseph is also a commentary of much of the rest of the Qur’an as well. So noticeable is this parallelism between the Qur’an and the Qayyúmu’l-Asmá’ that among Iranians of that period, the Qayyúmu’l-Asmá’ was known as the Qur’an of the Bábís.
All this may seem unremarkable until you realize that one of the cardinal doctrines of Islam (both Sunni and Shi‘i) is the inimitability of the Qur’an (I‘jáz al-Qur’án)—because the Qur’an is the Word of God, it cannot be imitated by human beings. No one had dared in over a millennium of Islamic culture to bring forward a book that so blatantly parallels the Qur’an. Hence you can imagine what impact the audacity of the claim had on Mullá Husayn when a young merchant who had no formal Islamic learning and whose native language was not Arabic produced this book and said it was His work.
- The Qayyúmu’l-Asmá’ is a commentary on one chapter (Súrah 12, the Súrah of Joseph) of the Qur’an. And yet it is like no other commentary produced in the Muslim world. The standard commentaries, even those by the great mystics of Islam, have a set form. They take a verse or two, and then they say “this means . . .” Thus the words of the Qur’an are clearly separated from the explanations of the author of the commentary by such words as “this means . . .” or “that is to say . . .” A respectful distance is maintained between the words of the author and the Word of God. In the Qayyúmu’l-Asmá’, the words of the Qur’an and the words of the author are intermingled seamlessly, thus creating the premise that the author considers His words of equal weight to that of the Qur’an.
- Similarly, in the standard commentaries, much weight is given to Traditions (hadíth) from the prophet Muhammad (or for Shi‘i s, from the Imáms) that interpret the verses of the Qur’an. Thus the authority of the interpretation rests with the Prophet or the Imáms, rather than the author of the commentary. The Báb relies on no Traditions in His interpretation. He alone is the authority for what He has written.
- In the text the Báb uses such Arabic words as awhá (it was revealed to me) and anzala (it came down to me) to describe how the book came to Him. These are words that in Islamic usage are restricted to the process of divine revelation. No Muslim would dare to claim this of something he had produced. At the most a Muslim might claim divine inspiration (ilhám), but wahy (revelation) and nuzúl (descent of divine verses) were restricted to the revelation vouchsafed to prophets.
- And yet the formal claim of the Báb made in the very first chapter of the Qayyúmu’l-Asmá’ is that this a book sent to him from the Hidden Imám Mahdí. That in itself is a shocking enough claim because Shi‘is believed that the gate of communication with the Hidden Imám was now closed and had been since AD 941 and that would remain the case until the Imám himself returned. So the Báb cleverly reveals His claim on two levels—the formal level is that He is the representative (báb) of the Hidden Imám and the higher level, concealed from many, that He is, in fact, the bearer of a new revelation from God. This is the mastery of the Qayyúmu’l-Asmá’. It both conceals and reveals at the same time—a stunning feat.
- The Báb was a master artist (which is discussed in some detail in the final unit in The Ministry of the Báb course). The greatest of artists take what is familiar and mold it into something new that retains some of the familiar and yet is radically new, allowing you to see things in the familiar that you never saw before. The Báb takes the two most sacred things in the Islamic world, the Qur’an and the Arabic language, and molds them into a new creation: something that is familiar and recognizably the same and yet at the same time is new and radically different. As with all great radical new art, what He produces creates a storm of criticism and detraction. “My child could paint better than this” say the critics of a radically new work of art. “My child can write better Arabic than this,” say the critics of the Qayyúmu’l-Asmá’. At first only a few can see the greatness of the art because they are attuned to it.
- Much of the literary excellence of the Qur’an is from the passages that are in rhyming prose (saj‘). But only a proportion of the Qur’an is in saj‘, while the whole of the Qayyúmu’l-Asmá’ is in saj‘. Similarly, in the Qur’an we read the challenge to Muhammad’s detractors to produce a Súrah like it (Qur’an 2:23). In the Qayyúmu’l-Asmá’, the challenge is to produce even some words like it (here, of course, the Báb does not mean producing the literal form of words but rather producing words that are as spiritually effective as what He has revealed). It is as though the Báb is saying, “Here is a book that is more excellent than the Qur’an.”
- Among the Shi‘is, there is now a belief that the Qur’an that is current among humankind is the revelation as given to Muhammad, but earlier generations of Shi‘is believed that passages of the Qur’an in which the Imám ‘Alí was extolled and appointed as the Prophet’s successor were excised by the Caliphs ‘Umar and ‘Uthmán and that the only true copy of the Qur’an was with Imám ‘Alí. That copy was passed down through the line of Imáms and is now with the Imám Mahdí, and he will bring it when he returns. This idea that the Imám Mahdí has with him the true Qur’an is well attested in the Shi‘i Traditions. So when the Báb came forward with a book that is very similar to the Qur’an but different, He was by implication claiming to be the Imám Mahdí, bringing the true Qur’an.
- There are numerous other aspects of the Qayyúmu’l-Asmá’ that make the production of it in forty days miraculous (this is in clear and challenging contrast to the forty years it took Muhammad to produce the Qur’an). There are so many fine touches that those well steeped in the Shaykhí tradition would have noticed but would have passed others by. In one work the Báb states that the number of verses in each Súrah of the Qayyúmu’l-Asmá’ is forty-two and in another work He states it is forty. The difference can be explained by the fact that each Súrah of the Qayymú’l-Asmá’ begins with the introductory invocation to God and the iteration of the verse from the Quranic Súrah of Joseph upon which that Súrah is commenting. With these two verses the total is forty-two; without them it is forty. If one takes the total of forty-two, it is numerically equivalent to “Balá” (Yes, indeed). This is the response that humanity gave on the day of the making of the primordial Covenant when God asked the question “Am I not your Lord?” and the people replied “Balá” (Qur’an 7:172) , and here it alludes to the Covenant requiring humanity to accept and believe in the Báb, the Manifestation of God. However, if one takes the total of forty, this is equivalent to lí (to me), in verse 4 of the Quranic Súrah of Joseph: “O my father! I saw eleven stars and the sun and the moon prostrating themselves to me.” Here again the phrase “to me” is signaling humanity’s acceptance of and obedience to the Báb. Thus, whichever version one takes, the entire book is symbolically a statement of the Covenant or rather of humanity’s response to the Covenant.
Is it any wonder then that Mullá Husayn reports (The Dawn-Breakers 62–63):
“‘I sat spellbound by His utterance, oblivious of time and of those who awaited me. Suddenly the call of the muadhdhin, summoning the faithful to their morning prayer, awakened me from the state of ecstasy into which I seemed to have fallen. All the delights, all the ineffable glories, which the Almighty has recounted in His Book as the priceless possessions of the people of Paradise—these I seemed to be experiencing that night. Methinks I was in a place of which it could be truly said: “Therein no toil shall reach us, and therein no weariness shall touch us”; “No vain discourse shall they hear therein, nor any falsehood, but only the cry ‘Peace! Peace!’”; “Their cry therein shall be, ‘Glory be to Thee, O God!’ and their salutation therein, ‘Peace!’ And the close of their cry, ‘Praise be to God, Lord of all creatures!’”
“Sleep had departed from me that night. I was enthralled by the music of that voice which rose and fell as He chanted; now swelling forth as He revealed verses of the Qayyúmu’l-Asmá’, again acquiring ethereal, subtle harmonies as He uttered the prayers He was revealing. At the end of each invocation, He would repeat this verse: “Far from the glory of thy Lord, the All-Glorious, be that which His creatures affirm of Him! And peace be upon His Messengers! And praise be to God, the Lord of all beings!”
I have not even started writing about the references in the Qayyúmu’l-Asmá’ to Bahá’u’lláh and the people of Bahá. Whole books could be (and have been) written on that subject. Suffice it for me to end with one passage from the Qayyúmu’l-Asmá’ to which Bahá’u’lláh refers in the Epistle to the Son of the Wolf (139–40): “Seek thou the shore of the Most Great Ocean, and enter, then, the Crimson Ark which God hath ordained in the Qayyúm-i-Asmá’ for the people of Bahá.” The Crimson Ark is, of course, the Ark of the Covenant. Bahá’u’lláh is here referring to the following passage from the Súrat al-Akbar, Súrah 57 of the Qayyúmu’l-Asmá’ (provisional translation):
Verily, God has created around this Báb oceans of water of the Elixir, made crimson by the oil of Existence and made alive by the fruit of the Desired One. And God has ordained for it ships [arks] of His precious crimson rubies. And only the people of Bahá have the permission of God the Exalted One to sail upon it.
Thus the Qayyúmu’l-Asmá’, by its structure, its form, and its words, shattered the world of Islam. It challenged the interpretations that the orthodox learned of Islam had built up over the centuries. It cleft the heaven of the Qur’an and brought into being a new heaven and a new earth. It was the sounding of the Trumpet. It was the Apocalypse. Thus Bahá’u’lláh refers to it as the “‘greatest and mightiest’ of all books in the Bábí Dispensation” (Bahá’u’lláh, quoted in Shoghi Effendi, God Passes By 6).