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Style of the Kitab-i-Aqdas, The: Aspects of the Sublime, by Suheil Bushrui:

by Sen McGlinn

published in Bahá'í Studies Review, 6
London: Association for Bahá'í Studies English-Speaking Europe, 1996
The Style of the Kitáb-i-Aqdas: Aspects of the sublime
Author: Suheil B. Bushrui
Publisher: Bethesda, University Press of Maryland, 1995, 74 pages
Review by: Sen McGlinn

This is a beautifully produced slim book (74pp.), the first in a projected series from the Bahá'í Chair for World Peace at the University of Maryland. The text is equally beautifully written, but the reader who approaches it expecting a study of the style of the Aqdas, or of the meaning of "the sublime" in literature in the light of the Aqdas, will find it rather insubstantial. The book does contain some examples of the literary devices of the Aqdas (47-68), a section which is both useful and, in the English-language literature, new. This is framed by a much more extensive Foreword and Introduction, and a final discussion of progressive revelation, which provide enraptured overall impressions of the significance and beauty of the Aqdas, rather than specific information or analysis. My suspicion is that it is these generalities, rather than the examples of stylistic devices, that were the most important message for the author--that is, that the book was intended to impart a reverent engagement with the Aqdas to Western Bahá'í readers, to ease them through the initial strangeness of the Aqdas for such readers, rather than to provide a study of its style. Thus it should be evaluated as a literary work itself, according to the extent to which it brings its audience to the experience of the Aqdas which the author intended, rather than as an academic study.

Nevertheless, it would be cavalier, in a review, not to discuss the book's academic content, especially as it presents itself as a study of style. I should say that the omissions which I will note are presumably deliberate, since the author holds degrees in English literature and must be capable of a literary analysis if that had been his object. The most striking omission, if one is expecting a study of style, is the failure to address the structure of the Aqdas and its apparent lack of literary unity. This might be addressed textually, by identifying the sections within the Aqdas which do have an apparent form, the passages which might mark the beginnings and ends of these units,(1) and the devices which give a degree of unity between the units. One might also approach this historically, by examining how the text as we have it came into being. From this statement in the seventh Ishráq, "Behold that which the Will of God hath revealed upon Our arrival in the Prison City and recorded in the Most Holy Book. Unto every father hath been enjoined the instruction of his son and daughter in the art of reading and writing...",(2) it would appear that Bahá'u'lláh had begun the conscious and written composition of the Aqdas at or soon after his arrival in 'Akká in September 1868. Some laws had been defined, though not necessarily in writing or in the words which we now have in the Aqdas, even earlier.(3) Bahá'u'lláh himself apparently considered the Aqdas to have been completed in 1873,(4) although the process of defining the laws continued in the Questions and Answers and elsewhere, and the eighth Ishraq (August 1885)(5) is explicitly said to be "accounted as part of the Most Holy Book".

If we compare the structure of the Aqdas, and even this limited evidence about its composition, with the structure and composition of the Epistle to the Son of the Wolf or the Kitáb-i- Íqán, it suggests that Bahá'u'lláh himself may not have considered the book as a literary unit, or its composition or compilation as one literary act.

Other explanations are possible: perhaps the Aqdas was written as a single unit, but its structure is a deliberate imitation of that of the Qur'án, in which the Surahs have been compiled in an arbitrary order. Or perhaps, by analogy to the Qur'án again, Bahá'u'lláh revealed sections to his secretaries, and accorded them the status of being part of the Most Holy Book, but did not himself determine the position in which every section should appear. Opinions on these matters may certainly differ: Bushrui claims that there is "a kind of inevitable relation ... between its component parts" (74), and it may be that he has perceived an underlying unity which I have missed. But he does not tell us what this unity or structure might be, and a discussion of "the style of the Aqdas" without any consideration of composition or over-all structure is, to say the least, strange.

Other omissions include the contents of the Aqdas and the relationship between content and style; the influence of Persian usage on the language, and Bahá'u'lláh's grammatical innovations. The treatment of small-scale literary devices also omits some features, such as hyperbole, which appear so striking as to require discussion. Given that the subtitle of the book is "Aspects of the sublime", it might also have been useful to provide some orientation to the concept of "the sublime" in literary criticism, from Longinus on. It is not clear whether the author assumes his readers to be familiar with the meaning(s) of "the sublime" in literary criticism, or is himself unaware of the weight of history behind the term. It appears to used here as synonymous with exalted and resounding language ( "a very special kind of language", p. 26). Longinus, on the other hand, is distrustful of the grand style, indeed of style and sublimity themselves if these are considered as consisting of the show of grandeur and a thick layer of literary devices. He defines the true sublime as that which elevates the reader, on repeated reflection,(6) and as the example he notes in Genesis 1:3 shows,(7) this is achieved most striking when an exalted thought is expressed in language of utmost simplicity, devoid of literary devices.

Assuming that these omissions and the fact that barely a third of the book is devoted to a limited stylistic analysis reflect the author's intentions rather than his limitations, it would be fair to retitle the book "An appreciation of the Kitáb-i-Aqdas" and to consider how well it can impart to Western readers the author's love of the Aqdas. Section I discusses the Arabic language, and will certainly be helpful to those not acquainted with that tongue. Section II begins with a discussion of the nature of Revelation, focusing almost entirely on written revelation. There is a curious non sequitur here, on page 36, which passes from the fixity of the sacred (Hebrew) text following the Council of Jamnia to the unity of the religions with a logic which I can neither follow nor relate to the style of the Aqdas. The concept of progressive revelation is reintroduced at the end of the book, from pages 70 to 73, again without any apparent relationship to the style of the Aqdas. These two section seem poorly integrated with the book as a whole, and to address different concerns. It may be that the author felt required to include some mention of this key Bahá'í doctrine for the benefit of possible non- Bahá'í readers. The section continues with brief sections on "Form" and "Content", although form in fact refers to style ("similes, metaphors, metonymy, and other linguistic embellishments") except for a passing mention of the lack of a conventional literary structure. The section on content is confined to the broadest of generalities and the bald assertion that form and content are sublimely congruent (40).

The section on "Style" which follows is an essay on the importance of sublime style as an evidence of the divine origin of the Qur'án and Aqdas, rather than an analysis of the style of the Aqdas itself. That follows, to some extent, in the subsequent sections on literary devices and key words (beginning on page 47) which, for this reader at least, might very happily be extended to a verse-by-verse commentary on the literary devices of the Aqdas. What we have here was for me tantalising rather than satisfying. The examples given are too scattered, and too few, to provide a sense of the literary quality of the Aqdas in the original.

As an analysis of the style of the Kitáb-i-Aqdas, the book would more appropriately have been published as an article in a journal such as World Order: it is exceedingly thin for a book. As a work of literature intended to bring its audience to share the author's experience of the Aqdas, I at least found it less than convincing. I also doubt whether the experience which it does convey, of an Aqdas assumed to be a given unity and described in terms of stylistic devices, is true to the Aqdas itself, with its complex structure and history of composition and its sparseness of style.


    1.  For instance, paragraphs 78 to 97 deal with the theme of civil governance, and might plausibly have been composed at one time. Paragraph 98 then begins: "Various petitions have come before Our throne ... We had, in Our wisdom, withheld Our Pen until, in recent days, letters arrived from number of the friends, and We have therefore responded...". The implication is that the work had been set aside for some time, and is now resumed in response to specific questions. However it would be risky to assume that all of the verses were composed or entered into the Aqdas in a chronological order corresponding to the arrangement of the text as we now have it. Another passage which appears to mark the end of a unit is paragraph 17, concluding a section on the key religious observances of obligatory prayer and fasting: "These are the ordinances of God that have been set down in the Books and Tablets by His Most Exalted Pen. Hold ye fast unto His statutes and commandments, and be not of those who, following their idle fancies and vain imaginings, have clung to the standards fixed by their own selves, and cast behind their backs the standards laid down by God."

    2.  Tablets of Bahá'u'lláh (Haifa: Bahá'í World Centre, 1978) 128.

    3.  For instance, the pilgrimage to the House of the Báb in Shiraz had been confirmed, and the details of the rites and prayers had been revealed in writing while Bahá'u'lláh was in Edirne. See Denis MacEoin, Rituals in Babism and Bahá'ísm (London: British Academic Press, 1994) 52. ]

    4.  According to a statement which I have not myself seen, in Amr wa khalq, Shoghi Effendi says that the book was "Revealed soon after Bahá'u'lláh had been transferred to the house of Udi Khammar (circa 1873)..." (God Passes By [Wilmette: Bahá'í Publishing Trust, 1944] 211). However the final verse was apparently added as late at 1882.

    5.  The dating is based on a Memorandum from the Research Department of the Bahá'í World Centre dated 2 April 1996, which states (in part): "In a Tablet of some 40 pages addressed to Várqa, which appears to have been revealed over a period of more than a month and which bears on its final page the date 19 Muharram 1303 AH (29 October 1885), Bahá'u'lláh informs Várqa that on 9 Dhi'l-Qa`dih 1302 (21 August 1885), a very long Tablet has been revealed for Jalíl-i-Khú'í on the Most Great Infallibility. This date actually forms part of the text of the Tablet to Várqa. Since the Most Great Infallibility is a theme discussed at great length in the Tablet of Ishraqat, it seems likely that it is to this Tablet that Bahá'u'lláh is referring."

    6. On the Sublime VII.

    7. On the Sublime IX:9.

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