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Abstract:
The Tablet of the Nightingale and the Owl is a short story, which reads like a fairy tale, about the search for the Beloved.
Notes:
Date unknown, written sometime during Bahá'u'lláh's stay in Edirne, circa 1863-1868.

Mirrored with permission from whoisbahaullah.com.


Tablet of the Nightingale and the Owl

translated by Juan Cole.
edited by Alison Marshall.
1863/1868?

1. Introduction, by Alison Marshall (from whoisbahaullah.com)

Tablet of the Nightingale and the Owl is a short story, which reads much like a fairy tale. It was written by Bahá'u'lláh when he was living in Edirne (Adrianople), sometime after he broke off relations with his half-brother, Mirza Yahya (Subh-i-Azal). Historian, Adib Taherzadeh, has suggested[1] that the reference in the tablet to the artificial nightingales being expelled from the divine garden could be interpreted as referring to Bahá'u'lláh's separation from Mirza Yahya.

Throughout his writings, Bahá'u'lláh refers to himself as the divine Beloved and to the believers as his lovers. In this tablet, he symbolises the divine Beloved as a spiritual Rose of perfect beauty and the believers as nightingales, who long for the beauty of the Rose. In the middle of the tablet, Bahá'u'lláh illustrates how misunderstandings develop and harden between people, by telling the story of the crow and the nightingale. This is a story within a story and, in this second story, Bahá'u'lláh plays the role of the nightingale.

Bahá'u'lláh begins the tablet by wasting no time getting to the point, that all is not well in the divine garden. The Rose has appeared but the nightingales are not interested. He appeals to them to unite with him, but the problem is that they are not real nightingales, just artificial ones. They don't recognise their Beloved and argue that he isn't the real Rose, which, they say, originated from Medina not Iraq. The Rose doesn't mince words, informing the nightingales that their argument proves that they've never, in fact, recognised the Rose at all. "Rather, you recognised walls, rafters and buildings." He explains that he isn't from any place in particular; instead, he comes from different places at different times. This is a key principle of Bahá'u'lláh's teachings, which is commonly referred to as the 'oneness of the prophets'. Briefly, it states that the prophets are, from a spiritual point of view, the same person, even though they appear to humanity at different times and places. Bahá'u'lláh accuses the nightingales of being crows "who have learned to mimic nightingales" through their blind obedience - the implication being that their religious life looks the part but isn't the real McCoy.

The Rose tells the artificial nightingales that they are like the owl, as it is depicted in the following story. The owl once told the nightingale that crows sing more beautifully than the nightingale. The nightingale asks for the chance to prove that this isn't true, suggesting that both he and the crow sing so that their songs can be compared. But the owl refuses this request, saying that he once heard a beautiful melody in a garden and asked around for what made the sound. Others told him it was a crow, and the owl decided this must be true for he happened to notice a crow fly out of the garden soon after he'd heard the sound. Ignoring the nightingale's protests, the crow becomes confirmed in his conclusion. He challenges the nightingale: if the nightingale made that sound, why hasn't he become famous for it? The nightingale explains that he was a victim of the hunter's tyranny and that he and his song have been hidden.

The tablet reverts back to the Rose addressing the artificial nightingales, counselling them not to allow an obscure idea that they've picked up from somewhere to become a certain truth. Instead, they should listen to the Rose himself and not worry about things like the place he originated from. Suddenly, a real nightingale arrives and tells the artificial ones that, although they are nightingales in form, they've been hanging out with crows for so long that they've become like them. He tells them to fly away, that the divine garden is a place for real nightingales only.

In the final paragraph, Bahá'u'lláh ends with general advice for the "human nightingales". He exhorts them to properly investigate who their real Beloved is and to do what they can to protect the divine garden and the world from his enemies. The way to do this is through manifesting good deeds and character, which will prove that the accusations of enemies are just slander. If, however, the enemies do witness a wrong committed by one of the lovers, all "must return to the most holy abode", so that only those wrong actions will vindicate the slanderers.

Note

  1. Adib Taherzadeh, The Revelation of Bahá'u'lláh. Adrianople, 1863-68 (Oxford: George Ronald, 1977) p 243. A full discussion of the tablet is on pages 241 to 244.

2. Translation, by Juan Cole


The Nightingale and the Owl

by Bahá'u'lláh


[1] The spiritual rose in the divine garden blossoms into mystical meanings at the approach of spring, but the artificial nightingales remain deprived.

[2] The rose says, "Nightingales: I am your beloved, and have appeared with perfect color, fragrance and delicacy, and with unparalleled freshness. Come mingle with your friend and do not fly away."

[3] The metaphorical nightingales say, "We are natives of Medina, and were intimate with the Arabian rose. You hail from the plane of true reality, and you threw off your veil in the garden of Iraq."

[4] The rose said, "It has become apparent that for all this time, you were deprived of the beauty of the All-Merciful, and never recognized me. Rather, you recognized walls, rafters and buildings. If you had known me, you would not now flee your friend. Nightingales, I am neither from Medina nor from Mecca, neither from Iraq nor Syria. Rather, from time to time I travel through the lands and observe. At one time I appeared in Egypt, at another in Bethlehem. At one point I was in Arabia and at another I bloomed in Iraq, then in Shiraz. Now, in Edirne I have thrown off my veil. You are known for your love of me, but it is apparent that you have begun to ignore me. It is obvious that you are really crows, who have learned to mimic nightingales. You are wandering in the land of illusion and blind obedience, and are bereft of the blessed garden of divine unity.

[5] "You are like the owl, who once said to the nightingale, 'Crows sing more beautifully than you.'

[6] "The nightingale replied, 'Owl, why are you being so unfair and closing your eyes to the truth? Every claim, in the end, requires substantiation and every assertion needs to be supported by evidence. I am present and the crow is present, so let him sing and then let me sing.'

[7] "The owl responded, 'This suggestion is unacceptable, and must be rejected. For, I heard a delightful melody from a garden. Afterwards I asked who had sung it. They told me that it was the voice of a crow. Moreover, I saw a crow come out of that garden, and I was convinced that the answer was true.'

[8] "The poor nightingale said, 'Owl, that was not the voice of a crow. That was my voice. Now I will sing that same melody that you heard, rather, an even better and more original one.'

[9] "The owl insisted, 'I will not budge from what I have said, and your offer is rejected, for I have heard the same thing from my forebears and peers. Now, the crow is present with documentary evidence in hand. If it was you, why did his name gain renown?'

[10] "The nightingale said, 'You are completely unfair! The hateful hunter had trapped me, and to my back was the sword of tyranny. That is the reason for which the crow became famous for it. I was concealed, rather than being fully manifest, and silent rather than singing flawlessly. Those possessing ears, however, are able to distinguish the song of the All-Merciful from the cawing of the crow. Now attend to the original voice and melody, so that it may show you the truth.'

[11] "You nightingales are just like that owl. Do not transform a minor illusion into a hundred thousand certainties, nor one syllable you overheard into the entire visible world. Listen to the counsel of the friend, and do not look at the face of your sweetheart with the eyes of a stranger. Know me by myself, not by my location or my dwelling places."

[12] They were conversing when suddenly, from the blessed garden that belongs to God, an illumined nightingale with a divine embellishment arrived, warbling a celestial song. He busied himself with circling around the rose, then said, "Although you have the form of nightingales, you have for some time associated intimately with crows, and their ways have become apparent in you. Your place is not this garden. Fly away! This spiritual rose is the center around which fly the nightingales from the divine nest."

[13] Then, human nightingales, make every effort to recognize the friend. Protect the rose of the heavenly garden from its enemies. That is, friends of truth, you must arm yourselves with service and safeguard the people of the world from the plotting and hypocrisy of the fomenters of dissension.You should appear among the people adorned with respect and humility and all the other attributes of God. Let the hem of holiness remain pure and undefiled by the slanders of Satan and his manifestations, and let the falsehoods of liars become clear and apparent to the peoples of the world. If, God forbid, an impure act is observed among you, all must return to the most holy abode, and only those actions will confirm the slanders of the liars. That is the sure truth, and praise be to God, lord of the worlds.

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