Studying the Tablet of All Food: Acuto October 2014

Surah of Imran
All food was lawful to the Children of Israel, except what Israel made unlawful for himself before the Torah was revealed.

The Tablet of All Food – Lawh-i- Kullu’ta’am – was revealed in Arabic by Baha’u’llah to Haji Mirza Kamalu’d-Din-i-Naraqi, a follower of the Báb, in answer to his question about the above verse in the Quran. It was during Baha’u’llah’s early days in Baghdad and an answer had been previously composed inadequately by Mirza Yahya, causing great disappointment to the recipient. Concerning Baha’u’llah’s response Shoghi Effendi recorded; ‘Turning to Bahá’u’lláh and repeating his request, he was honoured by a Tablet, in which Israel and his children were identified with the Báb and His followers respectively—a Tablet which by reason of the allusions it contained, the beauty of its language and the cogency of its argument, so enraptured the soul of its recipient that he would have, but for the restraining hand of Bahá’u’lláh, proclaimed forthwith his discovery of God’s hidden Secret in the person of the One Who had revealed it.’ (God Passes By p116-117)

Those attending this course had an opportunity to study an unpublished provisional English translation of this tablet. Presumably, like me, for most Baha’is present this was a first encounter with it other than brief references in Adib Taherzadeh’s ‘The Revelation of Baha’u’llah; Volume 1’ or Hasan Balyuzi’s ‘Baha’u’llah; King of Glory’. During the introduction in Acuto reference was made to a published commentary by Stephen Lamden but he, like other western scholars, was able to read the original Arabic and make observations from that.

A question to myself, therefore, was, why this tablet and why now? For many gathered at this meeting there was a shared reaction that it was very different in style from the freely available officially translated Writings we were used to. I can only assume that official translations were made available in respect of a perception of priority. Prior to Shoghi Effendi embarking on translating the Writings in earnest, coinciding with his arrival in Oxford, earlier translations were made. Possibly the most commendable at the time were those of Ali-Kuli Khan, assisted by his daughter Marzieh Gail. Their exquisite translation of the Seven Valleys, for example, was published in 1945. Marzieh, herself, became a prolific translator, and she assisted the Universal House of Justice right up to her passing. An example of her translation is the following; ‘Ask whatsoever thou wishest of Him alone; seek whatsoever thou seekest from Him alone. With a look He granteth a hundred thousand hopes, with a glance He healeth a hundred thousand incurable ills, with a nod He layeth balm on every wound, with a glimpse He freeth the hearts from the shackles of grief.’ However, Shoghi Effendi, while still in his early twenties and before he became the Guardian, saw fit to re-translate ‘Tarazat’ already available from Ali-Kuli Khan’s translation.

Shoghi Effendi first translations, under the guidance of Abdu’l-Baha, included Tarazat, as mentioned, Bisharat, Tajalliyat, the Epistles to Napoleon III and Queen Victoria, the Hidden Words, the Kitáb-i-Íqán and various others, including prayers. It might seem to most western Baha’is that there was a process involved in unfolding to the west Baha’u’llah’s main, broad-stroke principles that would guide them to realign their lives away from previous interpretations of both the spirit and action of religious living and aid them to build communities based on these new principles. ‘Gleanings’, for example, translated and compiled by Shoghi Effendi was published in 1935.Of it Martha Root had reported to Shoghi Effend, referring to Queen Marie of Romania’s appreciation, ‘She spoke too of several Bahá’í books, the depths of “Íqán,” and especially of “Gleanings from the Writings of Bahá’u’lláh,” which she said was a wonderful book! To quote her own words: ‘Even doubters would find a powerful strength in it, if they would read it alone, and would give their souls time to expand.’ (God Passes By p250) In Ruhiyyih Khanum’s memoirs of The Guardian she notes that after composing ‘God Passes By’ in 1944, Shoghi Effendi was unable to devote any more time to the work of translation due to his other pressing responsibilities. His final translation was ‘Epistle to the Son of the Wolf ‘published in 1941.
It might be worth reflecting that the Kitáb-i-Aqdas was not released in its entirety to the west until 1992. Thus, western Baha’is and their communities had grown and developed in their personal and community lives based on general principles rather than detailed commandments. However, the western community and the United States in particular received detailed instructions from Shoghi Effendi in his guidance on building the administrative order. That guidance, of course, was inspired by, in Dr Rafati’s words, the ‘gems’ in the Writings of Baha’u’llah and Abdul Baha. Thus, Baha’i knowledge and experience in the west centred largely on a broad understanding of living a spiritual life as envisioned by Baha’u’llah and explained by Abdu’l-Baha, understanding progressive revelation and the need for unity at many levels and, added to this, Shoghi Effendi’s specific and detailed instructions of how to elect assemblies, sustain them and fulfil the duties of membership and obedience to the covenant as represented in respect for and allegiance to its institutions. ‘The World Order of Bahá’u’lláh’ (a compilation), ‘The Promised Day is Come’ and ‘Advent of Divine Justice’ contain nearly 160,000 words and his letters to individuals and institutions just in the United Kingdom published in ‘Unfolding Destiny ’comes to nearly the same, 160,000 words and these are just part of Shoghi Effendi’s prolific output in respect of guidance to the Baha’is of the West.

The release of the Kitab-i-Aqdas to the west and rolling out laws such as huqúqu’lláh and the very recent introduction of the Badi calendar worldwide may indicate that the world-wide Baha’i community, protected by the shell of the established administrative order, can safely move forward in knowing and applying a much fuller understanding of Baha’u’llah’s revelation and His laws and ordinances. Thus, in Acuto, in October 2014, a group of ardent students gathered to study a tablet new to many in both in content and style.

In this Tablet, which Dr Rafati explained is a Tafsir (exegesis – critical explanation or interpretation), there are recurring references to Israel, the Israelites and, naturally, food. An overarching theme is that religious understanding and practise, with each succeeding manifestation, should move away from literal interpretations of scripture to metaphorical understandings. Truth, Baha’u’llah makes clear in later writings, is ‘relative’ not ‘absolute’ as affirmed by Shoghi Effendi; ‘The fundamental principle enunciated by Bahá’u’lláh … is that religious truth is not absolute but relative..’(The Promised day is Come p2) and the world community can only now move forward through consultation, universal participation and compromise. Thus, each of the recurring references to food, Israel and the Israelites have several metaphorical meanings. Food, for example, refers to the bearer of a cause, allegiance, the Bab, love for the Bab and the need for people to begin to value deeds above words. Israel indicates Muhammad, the Primal Point, the Bab, the Primal Will, the Point of the Quran, and the Manifestation of Command (Baha’u’llah Himself). The Israelites refers to Mirza Yahya, all Babis from 1844 to 1863 and the original children of Israel, the Jews. The style reflects one familiar to students of the Shaykhi School and would probably have been expected by the recipient.
Dr Rafati felt it necessary to familiarise us with the very complex history of Islam and the intricate and many layered philosophical and theological rivalries between its factions. This, in my mind, hinted at my question of why this tablet and why now? On pilgrimage in 1982 a pilgrim asked the speaker, why are Baha’is not more conspicuously involved in helping their fellow man by working, for example, with charities? The House member presiding explained that sometimes the ‘important’ must be sacrificed for the ‘most important’. At that time the Baha’i world was still very engaged in the monumental and world-wide task of creating a fully functioning and effective administrative order, a task that would ultimately rescue the world in ways the charities of the day could not. During the first decades of the Formative Age when the administration was being constructed, and successive teaching plans saw Baha’i communities spread across the world, Islam was rarely featured in news bulletins or media outlets and was not in the consciousness of most people outside Islamic countries. That has changed drastically and suddenly and currently, for whatever reason in the spiritual evolution of the planet, it would be difficult to go anywhere in the world and not see in all media, reports of activities related to the events connected to Islam unfolding on the world stage. Thus, now might be a very useful time to understand all the contests, spiritual and intellectual, that have led to such violent disunity and disintegration. To be able to study this particular tablet with a glimpse of the history behind it proved very apposite.

It is possible that different students at this conference left with different emphases on what they felt was learned and the importance of it to their own personal development in a growing understanding of Baha’u’llah and His revelation. If pressed I think I would say that my interest in learning so much about the revelation of this tablet was very much about the person of Baha’u’llah. Due to antiquity we, in truth, know very little about the previous manifestations and what we know is sometimes difficult to verify due to the dearth of authentic accounts. With the central figures of the Baha’i Faith, on the other hand, authentic insights into character and personality are legion. However, there is an irony. The central figures each had their own specific mission and none desired to have attention to themselves distract people from their central message and aims. Abdul Baha averred his only station was; ‘Thraldom to the Blessed Perfection is my glorious and refulgent diadem’. (Dispensation of Baha’u’llah p50) Shoghi Effendi stated he was; ‘a true brother, united with them in our common servitude to the Master’s Sacred Threshold’. (Guardian of the Baha’i Faith p26)

Baha’u’llah’s circumstance at the revelation of this tablet was that He had been mercilessly chained in the prison of Tehran, forced to travel with His family over five hundred miles across hostile mountainous territory in winter with only summer clothes, arriving in Baghdad to find the Bábi community in chaotic disarray. Despite these unimaginable difficulties, on hearing of Mirza Kamalu’d-Din’s disappointment He felt moved to reveal this answer, fraught, as explained to us by Dr Rafati, with complex risks and difficulties. Baha’u’llah makes His distress clear when He says in the Tablet; “Oceans of sadness have surged over Me, a drop of which no soul could bear to drink. Such is My grief that My soul hath well-nigh departed from My body…Give ear, O Kamál! ..to the voice of this lowly, this forsaken ant, that hath hid itself in its hole, and whose desire is to depart from your midst, and vanish from your sight, by reason of that which the hands of men have wrought. God, verily, hath been witness between Me and His servants…. Woe is Me, woe is Me!… All that I have seen from the day on which I first drank the pure milk from the breast of My mother until this moment hath been effaced from My memory, in consequence of that which the hands of the people have committed. (As cited in God Passes By p118).

Those assembled shared a surprise at the reverent references to Mirza Yahya, such as the ‘Temple of Divine Unity’. However, our disdain for Yahya and feeling that he should not be lauded in any way is based on historical hindsight. This Tablet was revealed when his machinations were embryonic. He was, after all, at the suggestion of Bahá’u’lláh, the Báb’s appointed leader, he was Baha’u’llah’s much younger half-brother and in his inexperience he was vulnerable to older and more knowledgeable pernicious influences. Thus, it is difficult for us now to gauge Baha’u’llah’s feelings towards Yahya at this time. It was explained to us that Baha’u’llah did not want to cause further disarray by seeming to challenge Yahya’s leadership and as the Bábis still believed there were occasions for justifiable violence Baha’u’llah did not want to be considered their leader, knowing from His experience in the Síyáh-Chál that He was ‘Him whom God will make manifest’ and His revelation would aver non-violence. As Shoghi Effendi explained, pure hearted recipients of Tablets from Bahá’u’lláh, like Mirza Kamalu’d-Din-i-Naraqi would have; ‘proclaimed forthwith his discovery of God’s hidden Secret.’ Baha’u’llah, we understand, did not want that to happen at this juncture.
Not long after revealing this Tablet Baha’u’llah withdrew from Baghdad to live a life of solitude in the mountains of Kurdistan. He made His motive for this decision clear when in the Kitab-i-Iqan He wrote; ‘The one object of Our retirement was to avoid becoming a subject of discord among the faithful, a source of disturbance unto Our companions, the means of injury to any soul, or the cause of sorrow to any heart.’ We discussed the idea that Baha’u’llah could not ‘hate’ anybody. His love was all-embracing, especially for His family, most of whom turned against Him causing Him to say to Sulṭán ‘Abdu’l-‘Azíz; So great have been Our sufferings that even the eyes of Our enemies have wept over Us.’ (Gleanings CXIV) Baha’u’llah’s avowed enemies did not distress Him. On more than one occasion He confirmed that; My captivity can bring on Me no shame. Nay, by My life, it conferreth on Me glory. That which can make Me ashamed is the conduct of such of My followers as profess to love Me, yet in fact follow the Evil One. They, indeed, are of the lost. (Gleanings LX) and again My sorrows are for those who have involved themselves in their corrupt passions, and claim to be associated with the Faith of God, the Gracious, the All-Praised. (Gleanings XLVI). Thus, in studying this Tablet it is important to know the extreme difficulties of Baha’u’llah’s situation in respect of the chaos within the Bábi community fuelled by Yahya’s ineptitude and his ambitious advisors. Later, in the Hidden Words Baha’u’llah was to state; O OPPRESSORS ON EARTH! Withdraw your hands from tyranny, for I have pledged Myself not to forgive any man’s injustice. This is My covenant which I have irrevocably decreed in the preserved tablet and sealed with My seal. When Baha’u’llah pens admonitions and rebukes it would seem He is addressing an injustice rather than expressing an emotional response to situations and events.
This Tablet was the first penned after Baha’u’llah’s vision in the Síyáh-Chál and in it we see the depth and breadth of Baha’u’llah’s love and the many layers of His intense suffering, and we come to an awareness of the complexity of His situation. The Tablet covers too many areas to list them all here and other students of the conference with different experience and knowledge base may allude to them in their thoughts. Therefore, my personal reaction to participating in this learning was that I felt I was brought yet closer to Baha’u’llah having learned so much that I had not previously known.

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