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Introduction by Alison Marshall


Tablet of the Holy Mariner is an allegorical work consisting of two independent sections, the first in Arabic verse and the second in Persian prose. Both sections contain different accounts of the story of the holy mariner and the divine ark or ship, which carries the believers to paradise. This introduction relates to the second section of the tablet.

Tablet of the Holy Mariner was written by Baha'u'llah on 26 March 1863. At the time, Baha'u'llah and his fellow believers were camping at a farm (Mazra`at al-Washshash) outside Baghdad, not far from Baha'u'llah's home. They were celebrating the festival of Naw Ruz, the Iranian new year, which lasts for 13 days. The tablet was written on the fifth day of Naw Ruz; that is, five days after new year’s day, which is 21 March on the solar calendar.

The stories told in both sections of the tablet are not happy ones and the Arabic section in particular has a tragic ending. When the believers heard it chanted to them, they expected something dreadful to happen. And it did. Immediately after the tablet was read out, Baha'u'llah ordered the tents to be taken down and for everyone to return to Baghdad. A messenger from the Governor of Baghdad, Namiq Pasha, arrived as they were preparing to go and asked Baha'u'llah to visit the Governor the next day. Baha'u'llah met with the Governor's deputy and was asked to shift his residence from Baghdad to the Ottoman capital, Istanbul (Constantinople). This was tragic news indeed for the believers. They faced being separated from Baha'u'llah, who they loved to distraction. Shoghi Effendi quotes an eye witness as saying: "That day ... witnessed a commotion associated with the turmoil of the Day of Resurrection. Methinks, the very gates and walls of the city wept aloud at their imminent separation from the Abha Beloved."[1]

The imagery used in the tablet is complex and difficult to interpret. It is generally accepted that the themes of the holy mariner and the ark are drawn from the biblical story of Noah's ark and how it carried the faithful to safety and salvation. Baha'is believe that the ark refers to the Cause of God or the Covenant and the holy mariner to Baha'u'llah. It is generally supposed that the tragedy of the stories refers to those who have opposed the central figures of the faith and the spread of the Baha'i religion. However, it is also widely believed that the tablet predicts future events in the fortunes of the Baha'i revelation. This belief is based on the following statement from Abdu'l-Baha: "Study the Tablet of the Holy Mariner that ye may know the truth and consider that the Blessed Beauty hath fully foretold future events. Let them who perceive take warning. Verily in this is a bounty for the sincere!"[2]

Another theme that Baha'u'llah appears to be drawing on in the tablet is that of the messenger and the voyage, a theme that is important in Persian mysticism.[3] The voyage refers to the journey of the soul to God, and the messenger is the spiritual guide that leads the soul there. These motifs of the journey and guide are used throughout Baha'u'llah's writings. They are central to mystical works such as the Seven Valleys and Gems of the Mysteries.

Baha'u'llah opens the Persian section of the Holy Mariner with an allusion to his enforced exiles, which have now turned him into a foreigner wherever he goes: "He is the Foreigner, the Persian, the Iraqi."

He begins his account of the fate of the divine ark with the passengers clinging to "one of the names" and the mariner setting sail. I assume that 'one of the names' refers to a name of a prophet of God. Baha'u'llah teaches in the Book of Certitude that all prophets are one and the fate of their revelation the same from the point of view of spiritual history, therefore it makes no difference what prophet is meant. The ark sets out for the shore of divine unity, which is beyond the "stations of limitation"; that is, presumably, the limitations of the physical world. The ark is becalmed, at which time God orders the mariner to teach the passengers one letter of the hidden knowledge. As a result, the passengers pass through many exalted spiritual states and arrive at "the homeland of lovers", where they are served wine and become intoxicated with spiritual knowledge. They are filled with love, forget themselves and all existence and give themselves to the Beauty of God. They continue to live in that heavenly place for "many ages and centuries".

Then God tests the passengers in the ark and it becomes clear that they have grown attached to the "wine server" and have forgotten God; that is, they have become attached to God's messenger and forgotten the One who sent him. When they attempt to climb the ladder that will take them to even higher spiritual states - those of the Greatest Name - the divine assayers reject them because they cannot smell on the passengers the fragrance of the "spiritual youth". This is a reference to Baha'u'llah, who often calls himself a 'youth'. Baha'u'llah appears to intend the term "wine server" to refer to any of the manifestations of God that appeared before him. Now that God has appeared in the Greatest Name - that is, Baha'u'llah - the people do not recognise him because they are attached their own "wine server". Baha'u'llah devotes the third-to-last paragraph to restating this principle - "do not prefer the presence of the wine server to meeting him" - in different ways.

In the penultimate paragraph, Baha'u'llah spells out the meaning of his story for his listeners. Perhaps the believers today will avoid the mistake of those in the story, and courageously struggle to get past the obstacles of self and desire and find the "illumined beauty". If they do meet him, they will be illumined by his light and their inner and outer selves will be united. Baha'u'llah asserts that this condition of inner and outer unity is higher than exalted spiritual states such as divine oneness and the most great sanctification. Baha'u'llah explains in the Tablet of the Son that these states were favoured by God in the dispensations of the Qur'an and Bayan: "In the dispensations of the Qur'an and the Bayan, the divine will preferred pure transcendence and absolute sanctification." Baha'u'llah then reiterates the importance of the believers making a supreme effort so that their inner lives are entirely in accordance with their outer ones.

The final two sentences of the paragraph contain a message that is difficult to fathom: "We have traversed the stage of expending the self for others. Arise to expend justice and fairness upon the souls that pertain to you." My understanding is that Baha'u'llah is referring back to the states of sanctification preferred in the Qur'an and Bayan, which emphasise the process of expending, or eliminating, self. Baha'u'llah is saying that, today, we are asked to emphasise something else: we must be inwardly and outwardly united. In the Tablet of the Son, Baha'u'llah illustrates the principle with the following example. Some people in Baha'u'llah's time were known for having eliminated self and attaining the exalted states of sanctification favoured in Islam. But they did not recognise Baha'u'llah. Therefore, despite having the appearance of great spiritual attainment, they were shown to be hypocrites and not inwardly and outwardly united.

In the final paragraph, Baha'u'llah ends on a tragic note by stating that the people do prefer their own desires to meeting the illumined beauty - although it would not be difficult for God to change this.

[1] Shoghi Effendi: God Passes By (Wilmette, Illinois: Baha'i Publishing Trust, 1970) p 148

[2] Selections from the Writings of Abdu'l-Baha (Haifa, Israel: Baha'i World Centre, 1978) p 314

[3] Henry Corbin: The Voyage and the Messenger. Iran and Philosophy, translated by Joseph Rowe (Berkley, California: North Atlantic Books, 1998)

For further discussion about the Tablet of the Holy Mariner, see:

  • Christopher Buck: Paradise and Paradigm (Los Angeles: Kalimat Press, 1999) pp 114-117, 198-200
  • Shoghi Effendi: God Passes By (Wilmette, Illinois: Baha'i Publishing Trust, 1970) pp 147-8
  • Adib Taherzadeh: The Revelation of Baha'u'llah. Baghdad, 1853-63 (Oxford: George Ronald, 1974) pp 228-243
  • John Walbridge, Sacred Acts. Sacred Space. Sacred Time (Oxford: George Ronald, 1996) pp 163-165, 234.
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