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Introduction by Alison Marshall


Sprinkling of the Cloud Beyond Being is a 19-verse poem, which Baha'u'llah composed in late 1852, during his four-month imprisonment in the Siyah Chal. Of the writings of Baha'u'llah that have survived to the present day, this poem is unique because it is the only work composed before Baha'u'llah was exiled from Iran. This makes it the earliest of the writings still in existence.

Baha'u'llah was imprisoned in the Siyah Chal as part of a wave of violence against the Babi community ordered by Nasiru'd-Din Shah. The persecution began after a small group of Babis reacted to the government's execution of the Bab by attempting to assassinate the Shah. While Baha'u'llah was in prison, he experienced the first of many visions he had of the celestial woman who was to bring him his revelation. Describing that first vision, he says that he heard a sweet voice above him and, when he looked up, he saw a celestial woman in the air in front of him. She was so full of joy that her soul shone and her cheeks glowed. She pointed to his head and called to everyone in heaven and earth, saying: "By God! This is the Best-Beloved of the worlds, and yet ye comprehend not. This is the Beauty of God amongst you, and the power of His sovereignty within you, could ye but understand."[1] The Sprinkling of the Cloud Beyond Being is about these visions and their spiritual significance.

At the time Baha'u'llah was exiled to Iraq, the Babi community was dispersed and demoralised. It had suffered the tragic loss of its prophet, the Bab, and the subsequent massacre by the Iranian government, and was without an effective leader. The Bab had appointed a successor, Mirza Yahya, but he was in hiding and failed to provide the rallying point the community desperately needed. Further uncertainty was generated by the fact that the community eagerly anticipated the appearance of 'Him Whom God will Manifest'; that is, the prophet that the Bab promised would come after him. During the upheaval following the Bab's martyrdom, several Babis claimed to be the Promised One, and the Sprinkling of the Cloud Beyond Being can be interpreted as a veiled claim on the part of Baha'u'llah. This is how the poem is understood by Baha'is today, who see it as the first work in the Baha'i revelation. However, the poem does not contain an open declaration by Baha'u'llah to be the Promised One, and it is likely that the Babis understood the poem to be a work of divine inspiration and not divine revelation. Baha'u'llah did not make a public declaration to be Him Whom God will Manifest until a decade later.

The reference to a 'cloud' (Arabic: 'ama) in the title of the poem originates from a tradition, or saying, attributed to the Prophet Muhammad. Someone asked Muhammad where God was before creating the heavens and earth. Muhammad is reported to have said: "In a cloud, above which was air and below which was air." By the time Baha'u'llah wrote this poem, the word 'cloud' ('ama) had a special meaning in Sufism, where it referred to the innermost essence of God.[2] In both the Baha'i and Islamic revelations, the essence of God is a reality that no one can access, not even the prophets. The phrase "Cloud Beyond Being", used in the title of the poem, is an attempt to capture in English this special meaning of the word 'cloud'. Another translation offered for this difficult concept is given by Stephen Lambden, who has translated the title as 'Sprinkling of the Cloud of Unknowing' and 'Sprinkling of the Divine Cloud'.[3]

Understanding this special meaning of the word 'cloud' is crucial for understanding the meaning of the poem. The first verse tells us that Baha'u'llah's spiritual passion is of such significance that it causes the very essence of God to rain down its realities. The announcement that God has been moved to share this exceptionally rare and precious favour with the world is the central theme of the poem. And the vehicle through which this favour is brought into the world is Baha'u'llah and, by implication, the Bab, through his declaration in 1844. The poem is crammed full of allusions to the extraordinary bounty that God has caused to rain down on the world. One important image Baha'u'llah uses is the appearance of the Houri, who is mentioned in verse 14: "Behold the visage of divinity, set your gaze on the heavenly houri." Obviously, this verse refers to the image of the Houri appearing in front of Baha'u'llah in the Siyah Chal. But it also signifies the beginning of the Baha'i revelation in the world. The Houri is the celestial woman who was to bring the revelation to Baha'u'llah, in the same way that the Angel Gabriel was the agent of divine revelation for Muhammad.

Another theme Baha'u'llah uses to allude to this new outpouring of divine bounty is that of the Day of God. Baha'is believe that the Babi and Baha'i dispensations have ushered in the Day of God; that is, the Last Day or Day of Judgement, which the divine scriptures promised would come in the fullness of time. For example, in The Qur'an, chapter 40, verse 16, Muhammad describes the Day of God as: "The Day whereon they will all come forth: not a single thing concerning them is hidden from God. Whose will be the Kingdom that Day? That of God, the One, the Overpowering!" Verse 9 of the poem announces the beginning of the Day of God, telling us that the countenance of the Lord has been revealed. Baha'u'llah is saying that the appearance of himself and the Bab has fulfilled the Day of God, implying that their appearance is, effectively, the same as the appearance of God. However, the verse should not be understood to mean that they manifest the essence of God, only God's qualities.

The idea that the appearance of Baha'u'llah fulfills the promise of the Day of God is also found in verse 7, which reads: "Our face began the age of 'I am He.' Our breath started the cycle 'He is He.'" The word 'He' is a translation of the Arabic word 'huwa', which in Arabic means 'he' and also 'God'. Therefore, in saying 'I am He', Baha'u'llah is effectively saying, 'I am God'. The Bab also declared 'I am God'; for example, he said: "The Lord hath, in truth, inspired Me to proclaim: Verily, verily, I am God, He besides Whom there is none other God."[4] Baha'u'llah explained the background of the phrase 'I am He' in a letter to a believer. In it, he says that a Shi'a tradition prophesied that the Promised One would utter a 'word' that would put the leaders of religion to flight. Baha'u'llah goes on to say that this 'word' is this: "'He' hath now appeared in the raiment of I'. He Who was hidden from mortal eyes exclaimeth: Lo! I am the All-Manifest."[5]

Now that we know that the word 'He' also means 'God', we can read the second half of verse 7, "Our breath started the cycle 'He is He'" to mean "Our breath started the cycle 'He is God' [or] 'God is He.'" In fact, the poem begins with the phrase 'He is God'. This phrase is found throughout the writings of the Bab and Baha'u'llah. Its meaning mystified the Baha'is in the West and they asked Abdu'l-Baha about it. He explained that human beings cannot access the essence of God, therefore we must turn to Baha'u'llah, who manifests the Deity to us; in other words, 'He, or Baha'u'llah, is God'. Abdu'l-Baha says:

"Thou hast asked regarding the phrase, 'He is God!' written above the Tablets. By this Word it is intended that no one hath any access to the Invisible Essence. The way is barred and the road is impassable. In this world, all men must turn their faces toward Him Whom God Shall Manifest [that is, Baha'u'llah]. He is the 'Dawning-place of Divinity' and the 'Manifestation of Deity.' He is the 'Ultimate Goal,' the 'Adored One' of all and the 'Worshipped One' of all."[6]

Another allusion to Baha'u'llah's divine station is found in verse 16, which uses imagery associated with Moses - the burning bush, and the white hand and bosom of Moses. The meaning of verse 16 is perhaps easier to grasp in a more literal translation than the one by Juan Cole. Stephen Lambden translates the verse as: "Observe the Fire of Moses! Behold the Snow-White Brightness! See thou that the Sinaitic Bosom raineth down from the Radiant Palm". The imagery used here is from Exodus, chapter 4, verse 6. Moses asks God to give him a sign that he can use to convince the people that his message is from God. God instructs Moses to put his hand into his bosom. When Moses pulls it out, it comes out "leprous as snow". In the first sentence of the poem, "Observe the Fire of Moses", Baha'u'llah is claiming to be the voice that spoke to Moses from the burning bush. In the second sentence, "Behold the Snow-White Brightness", Baha'u'llah is claiming to be Moses's snow-white hand. And in the third sentence, Baha'u'llah is saying that the fire in the bosom, or self, of Moses ("the Sinaitic Bosom") originated from the radiance of Baha'u'llah's own palm, meaning his Pen or Word.[7]

The final allusion that should be noted is in verse 18. Again, using the more literal translation from Stephen Lambden, the verse reads: "Observe the letter H – like Rosebud. Behold the letter B – like Ringlet. See thou that the Timbre of the Flute reverberateth through the hollow reed of Baha'!" Baha'u'llah is saying that the Arabic letter 'ha' looks like a rosebud. This letter has the following shape: ﻩ . The second letter 'ba' looks like a ringlet. It has the following shape: ﺏ. When the two images of the rosebud and the ringlet of hair are put together, and hence the two letters B and H are put together, they form the Arabic word 'Baha' (Glory) and the name of Baha'u'llah (Glory of God).

[1] Baha'u'llah: "Suriy-i-Haykal", in Summons of the Lord of Hosts. Tablets of Baha'u'llah (Haifa, Israel: Baha'i World Centre, 2002) para 7, p 6.

[2] Juan Cole: "Baha'u'llah and the Naqshbandi Sufis", in From Iran East and West, Studies in Babi and Baha’i History, Vol 2, edited by Juan Cole and Moojan Momen (Los Angeles: Kalimat Press, 1984), pp 10-11.

[3] See note 7 and the references below for Stephen Lambden's translations. For an in-depth examination of the word "'ama", see Stephen Lambden: On the word `Ama' in Islamic and Babi-Baha'i Literatures.

[4] The Bab: Selections from the Writings of the Bab, translated by Habib Taherzadeh (Haifa, Israel: Baha'i World Centre, 1976) p 67.

[5] Baha'u'llah: Tablets of Baha'u'llah Revealed after the Kitab-i-Aqdas, translated by Habib Taherzadeh (Haifa, Israel: Baha'i World Centre, 1978) p 258.

[6] `Abdu'l-Baha: Tablets of Abdu'l-Baha, Vol 3, (Wilmette, Illinois: Baha'i Publishing Trust, 1930) p 485.

[7] Stephen Lambden: "Sinaitic Mysteries: Notes on Moses/Sinai Motifs" in Studies in Honour of the Late Hasan M Balyuzi, Studies in the Babi and Baha'i Religions, Vol 5, edited by Moojan Momen (Los Angeles: Kalimat Press, 1988) pp 109-110.

For further discussion on the Sprinkling of the Cloud Beyond Being, see:

Juan Cole: "Baha'u'llah and the Naqshbandi Sufis", in From Iran East and West, Studies in Babi and Baha'i History, Vol 2, edited by Juan Cole and Moojan Momen (Los Angeles: Kalimat Press, 1984), pp 10-12.

Stephen Lambden: Select texts and translations of an early poem of Baha'u'llah Rashh-i `Ama.

Ramin Neshati: Tablet of the Mist of the Unknown.

Adib Taherzadeh: The Revelation of Baha'u'llah. Baghdad, 1853-63 (Oxford: George Ronald, 1974) pp 45-46, 51.

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