Introduction by Alison Marshall
The tablet known as Commentary on 'He who knows his self knows his Lord' was written for Hadiy-i Qazvini, and is also known as Tablet for Hadi (Lawh-i Hadi). The circumstances of its revelation have not yet been uncovered.
In The Dawn Breakers, Nabil-i-Azam1 includes Hadiy-i Qazvini in his list of the Letters of the Living, the first disciples of the Bab. However, there seems to be some question as to how much Hadi believed in the revelation of the Bab. Adib Taherzadeh2 recounts that Hadi confessed to Baha'u'llah that he doubted the claims of the Bab, partly because the Bab praised the Letters of the Living in lofty language and Hadi knew it was not true of him. Baha'u'llah replied that when a farmer irrigates crops, the weeds are watered as well. The praise the Bab gives to the Letters of the Living applies to only a few of them and the rest are included as a matter of course. In the end, Hadi became an Azali, choosing to follow Baha'u'llah's half-brother Mirza Yahya.
Commentary on 'He who knows his self knows his Lord' is important because it contains explanations that shed light on Baha'u'llah's views on general aspects of religion. I assume this is why Shoghi Effendi chose some passages from it to include in his compilation of Baha'u'llah's writings, Gleanings from the Writings of Baha'u'llah. Subjects Baha'u'llah discusses in the tablet are:
In the last paragraph of the tablet, Baha'u'llah comments that he has not dwelt on these subjects at length because he has already discussed them elsewhere. In my discussion, I will include references to other works that contain further elaboration.
After some initial greetings to Hadiy-i Qazvini (which are not included in Juan Cole's translation), Baha'u'llah begins the tablet with a paragraph declaring the absolute transcendence of God. Baha'u'llah refers to God's transcendence all through his writings. Two passages where he mentions the subject in some detail are found in the Book of Certitude, paragraphs 104-105, and Gleanings LXXXIV.
The New Shorter Oxford English Dictionary gives the verb 'to transcend' these two definitions (among others): to "exist apart from the limitations of (the material universe); be beyond the range or grasp of (human experience, reason, belief, etc)". These two ideas are found in the first sentence of paragraph 1: the unity of God "is exalted above all limitations" and "transcendeth the comprehension of all created things".
One way that these two ideas could be depicted is this:
Figure 1: Diagram depicting God's transcendence from creation
God exists apart from the limitations of creation, therefore a circle is put around creation to indicate an absolute barrier between God and creation. Given that God is 'outside of' creation, it follows that God is also beyond anything humans can understand. However, it is important to understand what is intended here by the word 'God'. As the diagram indicates, 'God' refers to God's essence. It is God's essence that transcends creation. But the attributes of God do appear in creation. This principle can be seen by looking at the way we humans create things. If you create something, you do not put your essence or soul into it. What appears in it are aspects of your personality – these are your attributes. Similarly, God's attributes are manifested in creation but not God's essence.3
The idea of "limitations of the world" is a common one in Baha'u'llah's writings. One way to understand this concept is to look at it in terms of the attributes or characteristics of things in the world.4 Examples of these attributes or characteristics include being loving, just, wrathful, green, large and tender. The world has an infinite number of attributes; when describing a thing, we always use this language of attributes. Limitations are an inherent part of the attributes. We can see how by looking at the fact that each attribute has a 'boundary' that sets it apart from the other attributes. For example, consider the attribute of the colour green: if something is green, then there is a boundary at which that greenness begins and ends, which enables the eye, for example, to distinguish between the green leaves of a tree and the sky. The boundary of an attribute is crucial because it enables us to see the attribute. Without it, we would be unable to distinguish things from one another. The boundary that marks an attribute off from other attributes is its 'limitation' because the boundary delimits the attribute to a particular statement about reality.
This limitation principle also applies to attributes that we use to describe people, such as being loving and hateful. The boundaries are not as clear here as they are with colour, but they do exist. You can have loving actions and hateful ones. There may be disagreement on when one ends and the other begins, but the distinction between them still exists, otherwise we could not meaningfully talk about the concepts of love and hate. This limiting factor built into the fabric of every attribute is behind the idea that God is "exalted above all limitations". If we describe God using a particular attribute, by necessity we limit God to the qualities of that attribute and imply that God lacks the qualities of other, different attributes. God, therefore, must be beyond attributes because all descriptions limit God to the characteristics of those depictions.
The two ideas in the opening sentence of the commentary - that God "is exalted above all limitations" and "transcendeth the comprehension of all created things" - also have implications for God's unity. You can see from figure 1 that there is only one thing outside of creation, and that is God. Everything else exists within creation. This is one reason why Baha'u'llah refers to the "unity of God" in the first sentence. Only God occupies the 'place' of transcendence from all creation. Another reason Baha'u'llah speaks of God's "unity" is because God is "exalted above all limitations". As we have seen, we cannot correctly describe God using any attribute because it limits God to the boundary of that depiction. Assigning attributes to God violates God's unity because it suggests God's reality is a mass of multiple and conflicting attributes. Therefore, Abdu'l-Baha explains that when we speak of God as having attributes, what we are actually doing is saying that God does not lack perfection.5 For example, if we say that God is loving, then we are saying that God does not lack any aspect of the perfection of love.
One of the misleading aspects about figure 1 is that it gives the impression that God is 'out there' somewhere, beyond creation. In fact, God isn't any 'where' because we cannot assign the attribute of place to God. But, in addition to that, the diagram is misleading because Baha'u'llah often refers to God as an 'essence'. In the third sentence of paragraph 1, for example, he refers to God's "incorruptible Essence". If we think about God as an essence rather than as a 'being in the sky', our diagram might be changed to this, where the circle spirals infinitely into a centre point:
Figure 2: Diagram depicting God as the transcendent essence of creation
In this diagram, God is depicted as the transcendent essence of creation. As with figure 1, the circle represents the absolute barrier between creation and the essence of God.
To recap, figures 1 and 2 illustrate that Baha'u'llah speaks about God in two ways simultaneously, both of which are found in paragraph 1 of the commentary:
In paragraph 2, Baha'u'llah explains that God has entrusted every thing with a "sign of His knowledge".6 The Arabic word translated here as "knowledge" is 'irfan', which, in Sufi and Shi'a mysticism, means 'mystical insight' into God. So, the kind of sign intended here is one that gives us insight into God. These signs are infinite in their range. But, to illustrate how a thing can be a sign of God's knowledge and how one can gain insight into God via a sign, I'll give an example from the Qur'an, which is full of them: "And a sign for them is the dead land, which we quickened"(36:33). Baha'u'llah tells us in the Book of Certitude (para 51) that the word 'earth' refers to the earth of understanding and knowledge in human hearts. Therefore, the process by which vegetation grows up from an apparently barren soil is a sign of how God makes 'vegetation' grow out of the soil of our hearts when we believe in the manifestation. Baha'u'llah describes this process in this way: "Know thou, that upon whatever hearts the bountiful showers of mercy, raining from the 'heaven' of divine Revelation, have fallen, the earth of those hearts hath verily been changed into the earth of divine knowledge and wisdom." (Book of Certitude, para 48)
In paragraph 10, as part of his discussion on the tradition 'He who knows his self knows his lord', Baha'u'llah goes into some detail about the sign of God in humans. In this translation, Baha'u'llah's reference to the sign of God in humans has been rendered as "the rational faculty". Baha'u'llah says that the rational faculty is the single self that stands behind all experience, both subjective and objective. That is, it is behind our sensual experience; our movement; and our inner experience, such as our emotion, imagination, reasoning and will. All these instruments rely on the rational faculty to function. Baha'u'llah explains that it is a mistake to think that the rational faculty is the same thing as one of these instruments - for example, the same as our sight – for if we lose our sight, we do not lose all our other abilities as well. In fact, Baha'u'llah emphasises that the rational faculty is not only different to these instruments, it is sanctified above them. He puts it like this: "Immeasurably exalted is this sign, in its essence and reality, above all such names and attributes" (para 12). By "names and attributes", Baha'u'llah is referring to the instruments described above. He calls them names and attributes because they are a reflection of the names and attributes of God. All the qualities and characteristics that humans have originate from attributes of God.
Why does Baha'u'llah emphasise the fact that our rational faculty is sanctified above the many functions it enables us to carry out? And if the rational faculty is a sign of the knowledge of God, what does it tell us about God? Answers to these questions can be seen when the rational faculty and its instruments are put into diagram form, as in figure 3.
Figure 3: Diagram of the component parts of a human being, depicting the rational faculty as its sanctified essence and the dependent instruments (names and attributes)
The important thing to notice is that the diagram's structure is like the one in figure 2, which depicts God as the transcendent essence of creation. The diagrams are similar because there are parallels between God's relationship to creation and the rational faculty's relationship to the functions it empowers us to perform. In the commentary, Baha'u'llah's discussion on the rational faculty comes in the section where he is explaining the meaning of the tradition 'He who knows his self knows his Lord'. The suggestion is that, by examining the relationship between the component parts of our own self, we can gain an understanding of the relationship between God and creation. The foundation of this idea is the fact that human beings are made in the image of God.
"O Son of Man! Veiled in My immemorial being and in the ancient eternity of My essence, I knew My love for thee; therefore I created thee, have engraved on thee Mine image and revealed to thee My beauty." (Arabic Hidden Word no 3)
In his Commentary on the Isolated Letters, Baha'u'llah tells us that God fashioned us in this way precisely for the purpose of enabling us to understand how God creates. It is only by experiencing it at work within ourselves that we get a proper understanding of God's creative process.7
The basic structural similarity between figures 2 and 3 lies in the fact that both depict an essence that is sanctified above the effects (names and attributes) it produces. In each case, the barrier between the essence and its effects is indicated by the circle. The circle represents the principle that, although the essence is the originator of manifold effects, it nevertheless remains sanctified and apart from them – it never enters into those effects. In his Commentary on the Isolated Letters, Baha'u'llah illustrates this principle by describing how we manifest speech. The language of the commentary is complex and so I quote here from an essay I wrote about it:
"Baha'u'llah asks the reader to observe how he is able to perform an action, which is 'but a single thing' and yet we might use a number of Names of God to describe or identify that action. 'In reality' he says the action is 'abstracted' from whatever we say about it. For example, a person might focus an action in the tongue and manifest speech, which is a 'trace' or an attribute of that action, but no matter what name we give that trace or what attributes result from the action, this does not alter the action itself. [Actions are] brought about by our 'turning towards' the various bodily functions that are given to humans. Baha'u'llah continues by saying that the same is true of the inner working of ourselves. If we focus our inner vision on the parts of our inner body, such as the mind or heart, the interplay between these parts and the various Names produces effects like 'the intellect, the spirit, and the inmost heart'."8
Baha'u'llah is saying that everything we do is brought about by our turning towards a particular function within us, be it a bodily function or a spiritual one (such as the mind), and our producing various effects (names and attributes) from that function. We do this all the time. In some cases, we are aware of the process, such as when we make difficult decisions and, at other times, we are unaware of it, such as when we do something without thinking about it. But every action originates from our rational faculty and is willed into existence. In this sense, we are like God in that we also say 'Be!' and it is. But our rational faculty never 'descends' into any of the effects it produces. It remains outside of them, controlling them. On the same principle, God does not 'descend' into creation but is at the same time the creator of it.
After explaining how the rational faculty works, Baha'u'llah shifts gear a bit in paragraph 13 to make the general point that the rational faculty is a mystery that human beings will never fathom and that it is futile for us to try. He goes on to argue that if we cannot understand this mystery, which works within us, it is even more impossible for us to understand God, who created the rational faculty. The highest point of human understanding is to confess our inability to do so.
Going back to paragraph 2 of the commentary, Baha'u'llah tells us that the sign of God is "the mirror of His beauty in the world of creation". In other words, every thing is a sign of the knowledge God and this sign in each thing reflects the beauty of God. But when it comes to human beings, there is more to be said on the matter. For, with reference to the sign in humans, Baha'u'llah goes on to explain that: "The greater the effort exerted for the refinement of this sublime and noble mirror, the more faithfully will it be made to reflect the glory of the names and attributes of God…." The assumption you are left with is that, although every human being already reflects God's beauty as a matter of course (because every person is a sign of God), human beings have this unique option available to them to work on refining their mirrors so that they can reflect the beauty of God better.
In the next sentence, Baha'u'llah outlines the things we could achieve if we put in the effort:
This leaves us with the question: how do we refine our mirror? Answer: we do it using the spiritual disciplines Baha'u'llah has set out for us. Key practices include:
The first sentence of paragraph 3 again mentions the idea of making efforts to clean our mirror: "There can be no doubt whatever that, in consequence of the efforts which every man may consciously exert and as a result of the exertion of his own spiritual faculties, this mirror can be so cleansed from the dross of earthly defilement and purged from satanic fancies as to be able to draw nigh unto the meads of eternal holiness and attain the courts of everlasting fellowship." Juan Cole, in his commentary on this passage, explains that:
"In the above passage Baha'u'llah says that the mirror can be polished by 'mujahadat-i nafsani' or psychological effort, and by spiritual meditations or attentiveness [tavajjuhat-i ruhani], which will allow us to draw near to the holy gardens of the All-Merciful. I don't think we yet fully understand within the Faith what psychological effort and spiritual attentiveness might really mean. But these are Sufi technical terms, and I do not think Baha'u'llah meant by them a sort of 'Protestant go-to-church-on-Sunday and occasionally say a short prayer' spirituality."9
This emphasis on psychological effort and spiritual attentiveness underlines the fact that the purpose of the spiritual disciplines (such as those listed above) is to establish the habit of thinking deeply about our lives and our relationship with God, and endeavouring to change our behaviour and root out our shortcomings. If we make this effort, Baha'u'llah tells us in the second half of the sentence, we will draw near to God. This occurs because, as the sentence suggests, we shift our psychological and spiritual focus from worldly pursuits ("earthly defilement"), and illusions generated by such things has hatred, prejudice and envy ("satanic fancies"), to the illuminating divine realities of the attributes of God.
When a person undertakes that shift in focus from worldly pursuits to the divine realities, they are 'born' into the next world. This is why, in paragraph 17, Baha'u'llah confirms the truth of the hadith, 'The believer is alive in both worlds'. The Sufis have traditionally referred to this transformation as 'dying to the world and living in God'. The idea is that you 'die' to the world because you no longer invest your self in it and you 'live' in God because you take up a new life in the spiritual realities. The new life in God is the same thing as the traditional Christian concept of being born again. Baha'u'llah explains this in the following passage:
"Even as Jesus said: 'Ye must be born again.' Again He saith: 'Except a man be born of water and of the Spirit, he cannot enter into the Kingdom of God…' The purport of these words is that whosoever in every dispensation is born of the Spirit and is quickened by the breath of the Manifestation of Holiness, he verily is of those that have attained unto 'life' and 'resurrection' and have entered into the 'paradise' of the love of God." (Book of Certitude, para 125)
The passage indicates that there are two kinds of 'birth': birth into the physical world of the flesh and a second birth into the spiritual worlds of the Kingdom of God. Baha'u'llah describes those who have been born again as having attained to "life". In paragraph 18, Baha'u'llah tells us that the originating purpose of creation is for true believers to undergo this transformation process and attain eternal life.10
In the second sentence of paragraph 3, Baha'u'llah introduces the principle that "for every thing a time hath been fixed, and for every fruit a season hath been ordained". The basic idea here is that every thing has a hidden capacity and a set time for revealing and perfecting it. After that, it is too late and the chance never returns. There are infinite examples of this principle at work in the world. The principle applies in nature, where plants have seasons in which they are supposed to grow, and flower or fruit. If some event intervenes and prevents the plant from getting the conditions it needs in the right season, it will not achieve its inherent potential. The principle applies in the spiritual realm as well. For example, people have the potential in their lifetime to recognise the most recent manifestation of God, or to stop committing an injustice or sin. Once we die, this opportunity is lost forever and we must face the consequences of the choices we made. In the Seven Valleys, Baha'u'llah summarises the principle in this way: "Though the grace of the All-Bounteous One is never stilled and never ceasing, yet to each time and era a portion is allotted and a bounty set apart, this in a given measure."(Seventh Valley) Drawing on this principle, Baha'u'llah is explaining, in paragraphs 3 and 4 of the commentary, that the days immediately associated with the time when the manifestation lives on earth contain a special bounty that no other days have. During this time, the mirror of the human heart can be cleansed to a degree that is not possible at other times. Believers who benefit from this bounty become so knowledgeable about God and so spiritually enlightened that they are entirely independent of the world and human learning.
In paragraphs 6 and 7, Baha'u'llah answers Hadi's question about the meaning of detachment. The concept of detachment is central to Baha'u'llah's thinking and appears all through his writings. The explanation that Baha'u'llah gives in these two paragraphs is one of the key pieces of information that we have on what Baha'u'llah meant by the concept.
Baha'u'llah begins his explanation of detachment by giving a short statement of its central context: that detachment refers to the soul being detached from all save God. Later on, he emphasises that detachment isn't to do with depriving oneself of physical things; for example, it doesn't mean giving away all your wealth and becoming poor. It is a spiritual state and not a physical one. A detached soul is one that has let go of the things of this world and 'soared up' to God. The soul undergoes a 'movement' from one inner place to another inner place. This movement is like the movement a person experiences when they move permanently from one country to another. To do this, they must detach from, or let go of, the life they lived in the first country, including the people they loved, and travel to take up life in the other country. In the same way, the detached soul lets go of preoccupations in this world that are self-centred and without spiritual benefit and becomes occupied instead with the love, praise and service of God.11
At the beginning of paragraph 8, Baha'u'llah says that Hadi has asked him about the concept of return. The wording of the paragraph makes it clear that Baha'u'llah is not inclined to get into the details of what it means. He states that the subject has been explained elsewhere in many places, including the Bab's Persian Bayan, and tells Hadi to consult those sources. But, throughout the paragraph, Baha'u'llah implies that by 'return' is meant the fact that the soul is bound inevitably to return to God, whether it be to God's mercy or God's wrath.
Probably, the most extensive discussion on the concept of return in Baha'u'llah's writings is found in the Book of Certitude, particularly at paragraph 160, although the full meaning of this paragraph cannot be grasped without reference to the whole argument. This paragraph gives a different explanation for the concept of return than the one given above. Instead, Baha'u'llah explains that 'return' refers to the fact that prophets, believers, and unbelievers reappear in each cycle of revelation. He says:
"Strive therefore to comprehend the meaning of 'return' which hath been so explicitly revealed in the Qur'an itself, and which none hath as yet understood. What sayest thou? If thou sayest that Muhammad was the 'return' of the Prophets of old, as is witnessed by this verse, His Companions must likewise be the 'return' of the bygone Companions, even as the 'return' of the former people is clearly attested by the text of the above-mentioned verses. And if thou deniest this, thou hast surely repudiated the truth of the Qur'an, the surest testimony of God unto men."12
The 'return' intended here is not the same thing as reincarnation. Baha'u'llah does not mean that the self same souls return in each successive cycle of revelation. He means that souls reappear in each cycle that have the same spiritual qualities and play the same spiritual role as those who appeared in previous cycles. This explanation of return is the one usually given in the writings for the concept of return.
In paragraph 14, Baha'u'llah extends the principle 'He who knows his self knows his Lord' in two areas. First, he says 'He who knows any thing knows his Lord'. Here, he underlines the point that the sign of God is found in every thing, including every soul, and is not limited to a privileged few. As such, recognising that sign in any created thing will lead to mystical knowledge of God.
Second, and more importantly, Baha'u'llah says 'He who knows the Self of God knows his Lord' and indicates that this is actually the primary meaning of the principle. The "self of God" refers to the manifestation of God, who appears at the beginning of each new revelation. Baha'u'llah's reasoning is this: God is transcendent above creation and therefore beyond human understanding. Therefore, the only way humans can gain knowledge of God is by knowing the manifestations of God. "They are the Self of God among His servants, His Manifestation in His creation, His Sign among His creatures." Hence, the person who knows the manifestation knows God. This means that when mystics in the past have claimed to have knowledge of their 'self' and hence knowledge of God, what they actually had was knowledge of the manifestations of God.
Again, the idea that the manifestations are the means by which humans gain knowledge of God is a fundamental concept in Baha'u'llah's teachings. A detailed discussion on this subject can be found on pages 97 to 100 (paragraphs 102-106) of the Book of Certitude.
Nabil-i-Azam: The Dawn-Breakers. Nabil's Narrative of the Early Days of the Baha'i Revelation, translated and edited by Shoghi Effendi (Wilmette, Illinois: Baha'i Publishing Trust, 1932) p. 80.
Adib Taherzadeh: The Revelation of Baha'u'llah: Adrianople 1863-68 (Oxford: George Ronald, 1977) p. 145.
For further discussion on this point, see Alison Marshall: Commentary on the divine unity.
This explanation comes from Ibn Arabi and can be found explained in detail in William Chittick: The Sufi Path of Knowledge (State University of New York Press, 1989) p 109.
Abdu'l-Baha: Some Answered Questions (Wilmette, Illinois: Baha'i Publishing Trust, 1990) p 148.
Another passage where Baha'u'llah discusses the sign of God is found in Gleanings, XCIII. Here, he states: "Know thou that every created thing is a sign of the revelation of God".
Baha'u'llah: Tablet about the Light Verse, XLIX: 6-7. Also see Alison Marshall: What on earth is a disconnected letter?, especially the section "The self-manifestation of the alif in humans".
Alison Marshall: What on earth is a disconnected letter? Baha'u'llah: Tablet about the Light Verse, L: 6-14.
Juan Cole: A Zen Gloss on Baha'u'llah's Commentary on 'He who knoweth his self knoweth his Lord'.
Another discussion on the hadith 'The believer is alive in both worlds' can be found in Baha'u'llah's Gems of Divine Mysteries, paras 64 and 65.
Despite the importance of detachment in Baha'u'llah's thought, the concept is little discussed in Baha'i secondary literature. However, further details can be found in Alison Marshall: The Kawthar of Divine Knowledge.
Baha'u'llah: Book of Certitude, para 160
For further discussion of this tablet, see Juan Cole: A Zen Gloss on Baha'u'llah's Commentary on "He who knoweth his self knoweth his Lord".