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This classic love tale of the Middle East, quoted by Baha'u'llah in the Seven Valleys, is prized by Sufi mystics as a spiritual allegory of the soul's search for union with God. A literary-critical analysis of the text yields theological clues.
Presented at the Irfán Colloquium Session #36, London School of Economics (July 14, 2001).

Mirrored with permission from

The Mystic's Flight:
The Parable of Majnún and Laylí

by Jack McLean

Abstract: The story of Layli (Layla) and Majnun is the classic love tale of the Middle East which is also prized by Sufi mystics as a profound spiritual allegory of the soul's search for and ultimate union with God. The Persian poet Nizami collected a number of folk versions of this originally Bedouin tale from the North Arabic tribe of Amir in western Saudi Arabia (7th century CE) and shaped them into a single narrative of more than 4,000 stanzas which has been compared for its beauty and depth to Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet.

This love story is to be understood, inter alia, as a parable, a short story whose moral is explicitly stated by Bahá'u'llah in his commentary. It is noteworthy in this regard that the story does not take place, as one might expect, in the Valley of Love, but in the Valley of Knowledge. In the perspective of philosophical theology, this paper examines Bahá'u'llah's adaptation in The Seven Valleys of Rumi's story entitled "the unworthy lover" at the end of the third and the beginning of the fourth Daftar in the Mathnavi (Nicholson's translation). While this story amounts to only three paragraphs, and is followed by two paragraphs of commentary, it contains much in a small compass.

While The Seven Valleys, The Four Valleys, and Bahá'u'llah's other mystical writings can be comparatively analysed with the criteria of scholarly works of mysticism in mind, and particularly, but not exclusively, those of the Sufis, as a mysticism of search and union, or a mysticism of knowledge, the story of Layli and Majnun, as a tale of lost love refound, is conveyed in terms of "ordinary" mundane consciousness. In this sense, this love story contains purely literary or prosaic as well as mystical elements. It also firmly anchors the element of narrative theology within mystical literature or theology itself. Upon analysis, we find that this parable exhibits not only classical features but is also singularly modern since it contains strong psychological existential elements that are unsparing in their realism.

In a combined literary critical and theological perspective, this paper makes an eisegetical[1] analysis of Bahá’u’lláh’s adaptation in the Seven Valleys of Rúmí’s story in the Mathnaví called “the unworthy lover.”[2] The definitive version of the originally Arabic middle-eastern romance tale of Majnún and Layla (Ar.) (Per.=Laylí) is found in the Persian poet Nizámí’s 3600 verse love poem Layla and Majnún composed in 1188 CE/584 AH. (Nizámí and Rúmí are roughly contemporaries, with the former being born in 1140-41 CE, about 67 years before Rúmí). I must admit at the outset to a certain disadvantage since textual exegesis of the original Persian would no doubt have greatly enriched this explication. However, my purpose is to concentrate on the larger issues of structure and meaning in the text through an examination of the parable genre and ‘he theological and spiritual implications of Bahá’u’lláh’s story. For these purposes, translation will serve.

I would also point out that, regardless of this story’s Arabic, Persian or other Islamic cultural antecedents, it has been largely univeralised by Bahá’u’lláh. We note, for example, that although Majnún and Laylí are mentioned elsewhere once by name in the Seven Valleys,[3] this adaptation begins only with the more impersonal, formulaic statement “There was once a lover.....”. Only the Judaeo-Islamic references to the angels of death and life, Izrá’íl and Isráfíl respectively, are retained.[4] This may indicate a desire on Bahá’u’lláh’s part to give the story greater cross-cultural appeal. I point out, in passing, that while it is perfectly valid to analyse this parable in light of its very rich middle-eastern cultural background, it is no less valid to examine this allegory along the lines provided by western scholarship. After all, if this story is going to be made relevant and accessible to westerners, as well as easterners, whether they be scholars or cultivated readers, then this kind of analysis is necessary.

The broad thesis of this paper is that Bahá’u’lláh’s adaptation has transformed by its brevity this melodramatic romance into an eloquent, wise and chaste but nonetheless dramatic allegory of the soul’s pilgrimage to find the holy grail of the presence of God. With Bahá’u’lláh’s adaptation, we move from melos (Gk.=song) and pathos (Gk.=suffering), that is, from the world of suffering and tragedy, to a theology of hope and salvation in which the ancient tale of the Bedouin poet Qays (Majnún) of the North Arabic tribe of Amir[5] and his beloved Layla, the daughter of an Arabic tribal chieftan, is remodelled and spiritually invigorated.

In developing the argument, I will follow this seven point outline by: (1) Situating the text (2) Establishing textual parallels with Rúmí and making a few observations on Nizámí’s expanded version. (3) Defining the parable (4) Pointing out reasons for the retentive value of Bahá’u’lláh’s story (5) Making a commentary on the paradox of love and knowledge found in the parable (6) Presenting an interpretation of Bahá’u’lláh’s moral to the story (7) Concluding.

(1) Situating and Reading the Text

It would be helpful to situate this microtale within the larger context of Bahá’u’lláh’s mystical writings. Nader Saiedi, in Logos and Civilization (2000), includes the following as the main mystical works of Bahá’u’lláh:[6] the Seven Valleys (Haft Vádí), the Four Valleys (Cháhár Vádí), the Qasídiy-i-Rash-i-‘Amá (Sprinklings From the Cloud of Unknowing), the poem revealed in the Síyáh-Chál of Tehran, Qasídiy-i-Varqá’íyyih (Ode of the Dove), the Arabic Lawh-i-Kullu’t-Ta’ám (Tablet of All Food) and the Javáhiru’l-Asrár (Gems of Mysteries). This list is, of course, not exhaustive and genre classification is, in any case, a matter of convenience since several of Bahá’u’lláh’s works are not exclusively of one genre or another. For example, the Lawh-i-Kullu’t-Ta’ám is partly cosmological and it seems to be generally true that mystical and cosmological schemata go hand in hand in the writings of Bahá’u’lláh.

Because of its strong mystical elements, Saiedi includes the Hidden Words (Kalimát-i-Maknúnih) in his list of Bahá’u’lláh’s mystical writings, even though Shoghi Effendi identifies this work as belonging to the “ethical” genre of Bahá’í sacred scripture.[7] The Seven Valleys is from the Baghdad period (1853-1863) and was written after Bahá’u’lláh’s return from Sulaymániyyíh (March 19, 1856) during the same few years as He wrote the The Hidden Words and the Kitáb-i-Iqán, his main ethical and doctrinal works respectively. In Shoghi Effendi’s judgment “it .may well be regarded as His greatest mystical composition...”[8]

Here is the text following the 1945 revised translation by Ali-Kuli Khan and Marzieh Gail. While scholars may point to certain weaknesses in this version, Shoghi Effendi approved this translation which gives it a certain status or validity. Future editions of the Seven Valleys will improve, not so much on the translation , but by providing annotations to the text. The Kuli Khan-Gail translation captures well in a free-flowing, elevated English idiom the spirit of the Persian original. Both lyrical and mystical-philosophical elements are finely rendered.

There was once a lover who had sighed for long years in separation from his beloved, and wasted in the fire of remoteness. From the rule of love, his heart was empty of patience, and his body weary of his spirit; he reckoned life without her as a mockery, and time consumed him away. How many a day he found no rest in longing for her; how many a night the pain of her kept him from sleep; his body was worn to a sigh, his heart’s wound had turned him to a cry of sorrow. He had given a thousand lives for one taste of the cup of her presence, but it availed him not. The doctors knew no cure for him, and companions avoided his company; yea, physicians have no medicine for one sick of love, unless the favor of the beloved one deliver him.

At last, the tree of his longing yielded the fruit of despair, and the fire of his hope fell to ashes. Then one night he could live no more, and he went out of his house and made for the marketplace. On a sudden, a watchman followed after him. He broke into a run, with the watchman following; then other watchmen came together, and barred every passage to the weary one. And the wretched one cried from his heart, and ran here and there, and moaned to himself: “Surely this watchman is Izrá'íl, my angel of death, following so fast upon me; or he is a tyrant of men, seeking to harm me.” His feet carried him on, the one bleeding with the arrow of love, and his heart lamented. Then he came to a garden wall, and with untold pain he scaled it, for it proved very high; and forgetting his life, he threw himself down to the garden.

And there he beheld his beloved with a lamp in her hand, searching for a ring she had lost. When the heart surrendered lover looked on his ravishing love, he drew a great breath and raised up his hands in prayer, crying: “O God! Give Thou glory to the watchman, and riches and long life. For the watchman was Gabriel, guiding this poor one; or he was Isráfil, bringing life to this wretched one!”[9]

These last two lines read in Persian: “Ey Khoda! In assass rá ezat deh va dolat bakhsh va báqí dár, keh in assass jebrá’íl bud keh dalilé in alil gasht yá esrá’fíl bud keh hayát bakhshay in zalíl shod!” Bahá’u’lláh’s own commentary I will take up below.

(2) The Textual Parallels in Rúmí and Nizámí: Brief Considerations

(a) Rúmí If we examine Rúmí’s version as translated by Nicholson at the end of the third with the conclusion being stated at the beginning of the fourth Daftar, we discover that Bahá’u’lláh’s revealed text follows Rúmí quite closely, both in letter and spirit. Among others, we come to four features that appear in Bahá’u’lláh’s story which are found in Rúmí: (1) the obstacles that stand in the face of love. Rúmí writes, for example: “Why is Love murderous from the first, so that he who is an outsider, runs away”[10] (2) The denial of love as a living death. Jalál’u’dín’s poetical-metaphysical language surfaces in this verse: “Sometime (self)-existence would lift up a head from him (appear in him); sometime he would eat of the fruit of non-existence.”[11] (3) the pursuit of the “night-patrol,” as it is called in Nicholson’s translation, or the “watchman” in the Kuli-Khan/Gail version). In Nicholson”s translation we read: “From fear of the night-patrol he sprang by night into the orchard: (there) he found his beloved, (radiant) as candle and lamp.”[12] (4) The blessings that are later invoked upon the watchman are also very close to the spirit and letter of Bahá’u’lláh’s version: AAt that moment he said to the Maker of the means (by which he had attained to his desire), “O God, have mercy on the night-patrol! Unbeknown (to me), Thou hast created the means: from the gate of Hell Thou hast brought me to Paradise.”[13]

(b) Nizámí

Nizámí has elaborately Persianised the relatively simple and barren early Arabic Bedouin sources. One of these many embellishments is the creation of the garden or orchard which has been taken over by Rúmí and which does not exist, naturally, in the original versions. In Nizámí’s version, there is no happy winning of Layla at the end as we find in Rúmí. In this sense, Bahá’u’lláh follows Rúmí more closely. With Nizámí’s great poem, the context is, of course, not specifically divine, although, as is typical of much romantic or dramatic literature about great lovers, there is a strong suggestion of immortal love. Nizámí writes at the end of chapter 53 in the English translation: “Two lovers lie awaiting in this tomb/Their resurrection from the grave’s dark womb/Faithful in separation, true in love/One tent will hold them in the world above.”[14]

In Nizámí there are moral overtones as well. It is only after Majnún is driven out of the paradise of his earthly love that he becomes both a poet and insane.[15] This may be interpreted as a moral of sacrifice and compensation regarding creative genius. The poet’s loss becomes the very means of enhancing his poetic gifts, albeit at a great price. Majnún not only loses his earthly beloved but he is also derided for his insanity by the same people who quote his verses.[16] For Nizámí, Majnún, in losing Laylí becomes the sacrifice to love and eventually he becomes love incarnate. This is not exactly tragedy in the western sense of the word. It is more like a conscious, deliberate willingness to live to the fullest the sacrifice one has consciously chosen to make and can thus be viewed as a kind of heroism. But it is understood that, in Troubadour fashion, the two lovers who are not destined to be together in this life, who do not consummate their love, will be united in the next. So their love wins out in the end.

(3) Definition of the Parable

The story of Majnún and Laylí is, of course, a parable, i.e., a mini-story intended to be an allegory. While the parable is associated mainly with biblical literature and more closely with the parables of Jesus, the parable is not entirely an antiquated form of discourse since modern novelists and short story writers still write in parabolic form,[17] although the meaning of this literature tends to be secular rather than sacred. For example, Ernest Hemingway’s last novel The Old Man and the Sea and John Steinbeck’s The Pearl can be interpreted as parables. The religious parable in its most elementary but succinct definition, is “an earthly story with a heavenly meaning.”[18] In the case of the Seven Valleys, it corresponds to the journey of the soul and its unity with God (the heavenly meaning), presented as a lost love who is found again (the earthly story).

In defining this genre, Robert H. Stein in his article on parables in The Oxford Companion to the Bible (1993) points out that the word parable reflects a” ...broad semantic range.”[19] This is also true of the Hebrew Bible term Máshál which was generally translated by parabolé in the Septuagint.[20] Máshál can refer to a proverb, taunt, riddle, allegory or story parable and scholars have pointed out that the parables of Christ resemble in many of their features the rabbinical stories of both the Talmud[21] and Midrash (“exposition”).[22] Dr. Franklin Lewis in his article “Scripture as Literature” (1997) has indicated certain features of the Persian literary matrix out of which certain of Bahá’u’lláh’s writings, as revelation, derive.[23] In like manner, the parables of Christ, in their outward form at least, derive from the Haggadah Midrash.

The romance tale of Majnún’s lamented loss and joyous reunion with Laylí corresponds to the story parable element in Stein's broad definition. In Bahá’u’lláh’s adaptation, the basic element of the parable is present simply because His recounting is intended as an allegory or implied analogy. In the Gospel, the parables of Christ may be allegories or simple similes or metaphors. To cite but two examples, the well-known Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11-32) is an allegory of the wayward soul’s return to God the Father and in the parable of the Mustard Seed, which is likened to the kingdom of heaven (Mark 4:30-32), the central image is a simile. In the parable of the Sower (Luke 8:4-21), we have a metaphor for the fate of the Word of God in the hearts of men. It is noteworthy that in the parable of the wicked labourers in the vineyard, or the wicked vinedressers as it is sometimes called (Mat. 21:33-44), the slaying of the son as heir of the lord of the vineyard is interpreted by ‘Abdu’l-Bahá in “The Master’s Last Tablet to America” as foretelling the machinations of the covenant-breakers against Him as Bahá’u’lláh’s rightful successor.[24]

The parable, through a human situation or setting, conveys a literal, allegorical, moral or mystical (the technical term is anagogical) meaning, or combinations thereof. With this four fold interpretive approach, any Bahá’í interpretation of its own sacred writings, whether of the záhir (outer/evident) or bátin (inner/symbolic) tendencies,[25] shares much in common with traditional Jewish, Christian and Muslim exegesis and hermeneutics. The four fold literal, allegorical, moral or anagogical approach is based on a set of basic medieval Christian interpretive techniques which have remained current over the centuries.[26] However, both Christian and Muslim exegesis and later Bahá’í modes of interpretation have benefited in large part from rabbinical midrash interpretive techniques which laid the foundation for this discipline.[27]

I mention here just two of these that are fully coherent with Christian, Islamic and Bahá’í views of the interpretation of scripture: (1) “scripture is polyvalent: it does not have one, fixed, original meaning but, rather, can mean many things at once.”[28] This view harmonises with Bahá’u’lláh’s quotation of the hadith attributed to the Imam Alí: “He also saith: ‘We speak one word, and by it we intend one and seventy meanings; each one of these meanings we can explain.’”[29] Obviously, this last statement accords with a basic principle of Muslim exegesis. (2) “Scripture is coherent: each part agrees with all the other parts. Scripture forms a harmonious, interlocking text. Contradictions can be only apparent, not real.”[30] This last point is very close to the statement of Shoghi Effendi written on his behalf to an individual, who, judging from the context of the letter, was perplexed by the profundity and seeming contradictions of the Bahá’í sacred writings. The letter reads: “He feels that many of the perplexities that arise in your mind could be dissipated if you always conceived of the teachings as one great whole with many facets. Truth may, in covering different subjects, appear to be contradictory, and yet it is all one if you carry the thought through to the end....”[31] This would appear to maintain the principle that any contradictions in scripture are only apparent, not real, which is a long-established general rule of scriptural hermeneutics.

The Sitz im Leben[32] or “setting in life” of the parables of Christ were most often drawn from everyday life in Palestine and Galilee. The dénouement of Bahá’u’lláh’s earthly story takes place in a garden but the only real setting is the human soul in which the spiritual journey through the human world takes place, a process that ‘Abdu’l-Bahá has called a "pilgrimage.”[33] But Stein points out that the commonplace occurrence is by no means always the case since with the parable “ times one encounters both exaggeration and unexpected behaviour.”[34] This description aptly applies to Majnún and his emotional excesses. The dramatic surprise ending also conveys the element of the unexpected.

(4) Reasons for the Retentive Value of This Story

Bahá’u’lláh’s adaptation in the Seven Valleys of Rúmí’s story must retain our attention for at least the following five reasons: (1) Bahá’u’lláh Makes His Own Commentary. This story, which is not only adopted but adapted by Bahá’u’lláh, is unique in that the Prophet offers his own textual commentary or moral. In this respect it is a textual parallel to Jesus's parable of the sower in Luke 8:4-21 which is the only parable of the some sixty odd parables[35] in the Gospel that Jesus interprets himself.

(2) Aesthetic Value. In terms of its sheer eloquence, even in translation, dramatic power and moral persuasion, this little story is one of the brightest gems in all of spiritual literature.

(3) The Rarity of the Parable Genre. In terms of genre, this story is noteworthy because parables are relatively rare in the writings of Bahá’u’lláh, at least in His sacred writings that thus far have been translated, although in the first valley of the Four Valleys we have a correlated parable, the snippet story of the mystic knower and the grammarian.[36]

(4) The Prosaic Element. Unlike the abstruse mystical-philosophical strongly sufistic discourse of the Seven Valleys, this story is prosaic in that it is couched in the non-mystical language of the romance tale and thus serves as a bridge between human and mystical experience. Seen within the context of the entire work, it allows the reader to make an entry into both the mystical world and the realm of spiritual transformation through what is a paranormal but arguably mundane state of consciousness, that of being in love and of losing a love, an experience which is virtually universal. Thus, the story of Majnún and Laylí has, in addition to its mystic overtones, strong literary elements which allow us to read the story as a form of narrative theology.

I should add here, this parable as narrative theology contains tragi-comical elements, with the comedic element dominating in the sudden, dramatic ending which is an excellent example of both “reversal” and “recognition” as outlined in The Poetics of Aristotle, peripeteia or peripety and anagnorisis respectively. Peripety refers to a reversal of fortune (from the spectator’s point of view) and to a reversal of intention (from the character’s point of view) and recognition/discovery is “...a change from ignorance to knowledge of a bond of love or hate between persons who are destined for good fortune or the reverse.”[37] These statement s apply to our parable because Majnún’s intention changed from death to life and the reader sees in his reunion with Laylí a reversal of fortune. The parable also presents the reader with a theology of hope.[38]

(5) A Modern Story With Existential Elements. While this story is a classic, and in a sense, timeless love story, by its existential content it qualifies as being singularly modern. Majnún’s psychological state of mind exhibits the traits of several of the characters in modern existential literature such as those we find in Dostoyevsky's novels which often portray religious personalities who are excessive, bizarre, twisted or even amoral. However, while I am not arguing that Majnún is a Dostoyevskean character, neither does Bahá’u’lláh present him as a typical saint, or even a hero. Indeed, Bahá’u’lláh’s commentary would seem to indicate that Majnún, before the realisation of his heart’s desire, was a rather impatient, incontinent lover. He is, however, the prototype of the faithful, if not excessive lover, who in the end realises his heart's desire. By sheer excess of zeal and sincerity of will, Majnún wins the goal. But viewed from another perspective, that of moderation and the golden mean, he could be viewed as manifesting a singular lack of detachment. Thus, while Majnún exhibits definite psychological excesses that are set in a Middle-Eastern context, he is thoroughly contemporary and western in his manifestation of angst, loneliness, depression and the utter despair that leads him to temporary insanity and to contemplate self-destruction: “At last, the tree of his longing yielded the fruit of despair, and the fire of his hope fell to ashes. Then one night he could live no more, and he went out of his house and made for the marketplace.” The nadir of Majnún’s vortex of despair becomes a death-wish and we sense that something ominous is about to take place. But then the sudden reversal happens.

(5) Commentary: Love in the Valley of Knowledge

I would like to turn now from this background to a brief commentary on the text itself. The reader is struck by something unexpected about this parable. One would expect to find a love story in the Valley of Love. But anyone who has read the Kitáb-i-Aqdas knows that the impulses of divine revelation are completely unrestrained and defy, in anti-scholarly fashion, arrangement by genre or categories. So we find that in the Aqdas legal texts and poetical-mystical passages are juxtaposed, irrespective of type, within the same fabric of discourse in a manner that some readers have felt as abrupt bifurcations of the text.

The parable of Majnún and Laylí is found rather in the Valley of Knowledge. What are we to make of this? First, that knowledge and love are not separable and unrelated as the western epistemologists have imagined. Love and knowledge coexist in a symbiotic dialectic that leads on, not merely to the acquisition of knowledge as a body of accumulated data, but to the experience of Reality Itself (Al Haqq). ‘Abdu’l-Bahá erases the distinction between love and knowledge when He says simply: “Knowledge is love. Study, listen to exhortations, think, try to understand the wisdom and greatness of God. The soil must be fertilized before the seed can be sown.”[39] His botanical analogy suggests that the fertilization process that “grows knowledge,” is accomplished by love, and not by reason alone; by a certain attitude of mind which is synonymous with a predisposition of the heart to openness and wonder.

One is reminded of Blaise Pascal’s famous dictum: "Le coeur a ses raisons que la raison ne connaît pas."[40] (“The heart has its reasons that reason does not know.”) It is also clear from Bahá’u’lláh’s own commentary, which will be considered below, that Lady Wisdom, must temper and guide love. So Bahá’u’lláh writes elsewhere in the Seven Valleys, this time in the Valley of Love, as if to make a cautionary remark: “To merit the madness of love, man must abound in sanity;”[41] It is not so easy to make generalisations about love, but in western culture an element of irrationality, or excessive passion is usually associated with love. In the Middle-East, as our story attests, it is also considered to be a kind of insanity. Indeed, the very name Majnún means both one who is insane and one who is smitten with love: “The doctors knew no cure for him,” Bahá’u’lláh writes, “and companions avoided his company; yea, physicians have no medicine for one sick of love, unless the favor of the beloved one deliver him.”[42]

In paradoxical fashion, Bahá’u’lláh is alluding to the necessity for a certain sober rationality in love. In its truer, selfless forms, love is highly rational, i.e. reasonable; it serves the needs of both the heart and the head as well as societal congeniality. As I wrote in a syllogism in my short essay “Love is Cognitive” in Under the Divine Lote Tree (1999): “The cognitive distinguishes the true from the false. Love also proves to be true or false. Consequently love is cognitive.”[43] The supra-rational element which mysticism seeks contains a strong element of rationality. Erich Fromm in Psychoanalysis and Religion (1950) writes: “I should like to note that, quite in contrast to a popular sentiment that mysticism is an irrational type of religious experience, it represents — like Hindu and Buddhist thought and Spinozism — the highest development of rationality in religious thinking.”[44] Fromm goes on to quote from Albert Schweitzer’s Kulturphilosophie (Philosophy of Civilization) that “Rational thinking that is free from assumptions ends in mysticism.”[45] Among other things, Schweitzer’s aphorism certainly points to the divine light that pervades the inwardness of all things that has attracted the attention of both mystic and scientist alike.

I have already implied that paradoxical language is characteristic of mystical discourse. We read several examples of paradoxical language in the The Seven Valleys. A particularly striking one is the citation of the Persian mystic poem “A lover is he who is chill in hell fire; A knower is he who is dry in the sea.”[46] Such statements not only defy, but they completely break the logical codes of language and thought, in what would appear to the rationalist or the non-mystic to be a surreal universe. Bahá’u’lláh declares that for the lovers in the Valley of Knowledge: “To them all words of sense are meaningless, and senseless words are full of meaning.”[47] However, we must remember that with the non-mathematical paradox, resolution comes about through the common factor, the coincidentia oppositorum, the point at which opposites meet. Bahá’u’lláh seems to be telling us that in mysticism the resolution of these seeming contradictions comes about through the experience of a higher spiritual state in which fluctuations of ordinary consciousness lose their meaning and we pass from relativity into the Absolute. As He says: “They who soar in the heaven of singleness and reach to the sea of the Absolute, reckon this city — which is the station of life in God — as the furthermost state of mystic knowers, and the farthest homeland of the lovers.”[48]

(6) An Interpretation of Bahá’u’lláh’s Moral

As I already pointed out above, one reason, inter alia, for taking note of this parable is the fact that Bahá’u’lláh Himself comments on the tale. In the Seven Valleys Bahá’u’lláh presents Himself, not only as the consummate mystic, who understand this rare phenomenon from the inside-out, but also as a teacher of wisdom. I should preface Bahá’u’lláh’s commentary with the observation that more recent interpretations of the Gospel parables read them as eschatological stories “...of both promise and warning.”[49], that is, of judgement. This comment certainly applies to the tenor of Bahá’u’lláh’s observations. He writes:

“Indeed, his words were true, for he had found many a secret justice in this seeming tyranny of the watchman, and seen how many a mercy lay hid behind the veil. Out of wrath, the guard had led him who was athirst in love’s desert to the sea of his loved one, and lit up the dark night of absence with the light of reunion. He had driven one who was afar, into the garden of nearness, had guided an ailing soul to the heart’s physician.

Now if the lover could have looked ahead, he would have blessed the watchman at the start, and prayed on his behalf, and he would have seen that tyranny as justice; but since the end was veiled to him, he moaned and made his plaint in the beginning. Yet those who journey in the garden land of knowledge, because they see the end in the beginning, see peace in war and friendliness in anger.”[50]

What may we understand about Bahá’u’lláh’s key seemingly paradoxical phrase of seeing the end in the beginning? This statement, in my view, is not reserved for the mystic alone. It does not allude, primarily, to something esoteric, or a form of clairvoyance, of seeing into the future, although that possibility genuinely exists. As I have pointed out above, this parable contains prosaic — if love is prosaic — as well as mystical elements and acts as a bridge between mundane consciousness and extra-mundane experience. With this bridge, we have an element of potential universal accessibility to the state of mind contained in Bahá’u’lláh’s counsel to see the end in the beginning during the time of test and trial. Seeing the end in the beginning is a type of vision that is both a form of knowledge and an evidence of faith. And it is clear that Bahá’u’lláh associates this visionary sense or insight with both faith and knowledge. He writes, for example, in the tablet of Tarázát (Ornaments) in the First Taráz: “ In this Day whatsoever serveth to reduce blindness and to increase vision is worthy of consideration. This vision acteth as the agent and guide for true knowledge. Indeed in the estimation of men of wisdom keenness of understanding is due to keenness of vision.”[51] The state of which Bahá’u’lláh writes is a type of faith, a perfect faith, that of knowing that “the then is now.”[52] Seeing the end in the beginning is nothing other than trust in God, a faith-state that the Greek-speaking writers of the Gospel called pistis, which can be translated as faith or trust.

Bahá’u’lláh writes in the Asl-i-Kullu’l-Khayr (Words of Wisdom) that “the source of all good is trust in God, submission unto His command, and contentment with His holy will and pleasure.”[53] Christ said in St. Matthew’s gospel: “And all things whatsoever ye shall ask in prayer, believing, ye shall receive.” (Mat. 21:22). This assertion also can be construed as seeing the end in the beginning. For faith is not blind but visionary. And if it must be blind, it is only so that we may learn to see in the dark. Put differently in Aristotelian terms, seeing the end in the beginning sees the actuality in the potentiality, the actuality which is as yet unrealised, thus far not experienced in time, but will be.

St. Thomas Aquinas writes in the Summa Theologica that only ultimate things are worthy of attention.[54]Aquinas quotes Dionysius from On the Divine Names that “the good includes both existing and non-existing things”[55] which I take to mean things that are as yet unrealised. Bahá’u’lláh teaches that in the Valley of Knowledge the war of this life will ultimately lead to peace, that anger will one day terminate in friendliness, that estrangement will lead to abiding fellowship. And He asks us to envision these ends, though we may be experiencing their contrary. Again in the Asl-i-Kullu’l-Khayr, Bahá’u’lláh writes: “The essence of true safety is to observe silence, to look at the end of things and to renounce the world.”[56] In His moral, Bahá’u’lláh is clearly pointing to an ultimate or end thing; the salvation of the human soul or attaining the presence of God, the paradise that He tells us in the Iqán occurs when the soul of the true seeker becomes wedded to the City of the Word of God and to nothing else: “They that valiantly labor in quest of God, will, when once they have renounced all else but Him, be so attached and wedded unto that City, that a moment’s separation from it would to them be unthinkable.”[57]

Another lesson can be found in the love story that has to do with “being and having” which is also the title of a thoughtful book by the Christian French existentialist Gabriel Marcel.[58] Marcel teaches that the highly acquisitive appetite of contemporary western society risks overpowering — and from our vantage point some fifty odd years later, has overpowered — the value of those contemplative thoughts that participate in the mystery of being which Marcel found especially in religion, art and metaphysics. While Marcel does not issue a blanket condemnation of “having,” he is right to have perceived a deleterious trend in modern society — conspicuous consumerism, one of the several manifestations of materialism.

Now, in a sense, Majnún is a consumer. He desires Laylí and he is miserable because he does not have her and suffers, in Kierkegaard’s phrase, “...the sickness unto death,”[59] a dread of soul. But Bahá’u’lláh’s philosophy of detachment teaches that the only things we can possess in an ultimate sense are the spiritual qualities of our own soul. Thus I find a lesson in detachment implicit in the parable under study. Bahá’u’lláh is pointing, not to having, but to being, and more importantly to becoming, since being is static and becoming is dynamic. Although He is pointing to the assurance of the spiritual acquisition of end things, Bahá’u’lláh is also pointing to process, to the pilgrim’s way, and to what we must become, despite, or perhaps because of, the accidents and misadventures that happen along the way. And in the end, it is the journey that is the means to the end; the journey — and God’s good grace. For it is not really by accident that Laylí is restored to Majnún in a garden enclosure.

(7) Conclusion

In light of the above argument, we may conclude that a gradually refined three-layered version of this story exists; that of Nizámí, Rúmí and Bahá’u’lláh which correspond to the poetical, ethical, and theological stages respectively. Bahá’u’lláh’s scripture, while retaining some of the basic features of Nizámí’s and Rúmí’s version, is largely divested of the melos of Nizámí and is more pointedly didactic and goes beyond the ethical context of the Mathnaví to locate the parable more explicitly in the divine milieu . In short, Bahá’u’lláh’s parable has captured the essence of the earlier versions — their drama, tragedy and suffering, sense of alienation, sublimity of soul and metaphysical allusions but has pared down these versions to their essential and has distilled them into a self-contained spiritual allegory of the soul’s desperate search for God, a search that ends in a theology of hope and the promise of salvation to the true seeker.

In Bahá’u’lláh’s rendering of Majnún and Laylí, we have “closure,” that currently trendy word that derives from literary criticism. But Bahá’u’lláh’s account contains the covenantal language of a promise and a warning; the promise of the Heavenly Beloved and the warning not to despair over our trials, but to view them as rites of passage to a more abundant life. And in its earthly setting this closure takes place, once again, in a garden where it first began at the beginning of the Adamic cycle. Thus we find that the hermeneutical circle first traced in the Book of Genesis is completed by Bahá’u’lláh, once again in the biblical “land between the two rivers” where modern day Baghdad is located and where this story was revealed. That closure is the anagogy of the medieval Christian exegetes, the soul's eschatological struggle and final repose in the “bosom of Abraham,”[60] in the beatific vision of the presence of God. Finally, Bahá’u’lláh allegory gives credence to St. Augustine’s winsome saying:”...quia fecisti nos ad te et inquietum est cor nostrum, donec requiescat in te.” “For Thou hast made us for Thyself and our hearts are restless till they rest in Thee.”[61]

  1. Eisegesis is sometimes contrasted with exegesis. The restrictive meaning of exégésis (Gk.), the work of textual interpretation, refers to a process of bringing meaning “out of” the text. Exegesis relies upon familiarity with the source language of the text and takes into account the literary and historical background that may have contributed to the creation of the text. Eisegesis is a more subjective exercise or “reading in.” In Bahá’í terms, eisegesis corresponds to one of the meanings of “individual interpretation” and involves reading one’s own biases into texts or understanding scripture through the filters that constitute individual understanding or the eisegete’s academic discipline. See “Exegesis” by Raymond F. Collins in A New Dictionary of Christian Theology, edited by Alan Richardson and John Bowden (London: SCM Press Ltd, 1983), pp. 197-201.
  2. In Nicholson’s translation found at the end of the third and the beginning of the fourth Daftar. See The Mathnawi of Jalalu’ddin Rumi, Books I-VIII in 3 volumes, edited and translated by Reynold A. Nicholson (Cambridge: The University Press, 1930, reprint of 1982, pp. 265-76 (vol. 2).
  3. In the valley of search, Bahá’u’lláh refers to “the Majnún of Love” as the standard which the seeker must strive to attain. He relates that the distracted Majnún sought for Laylí even in the dust. Bahá’u’lláh comments: “Yea, although to the wise it is shameful to seek the Lord of Lords in the dust, yet this betokeneth intense ardor in searching.” (pp. 6-7)
  4. References to angelology in the Abrahamic faiths usually derive originally from the Hebrew Bible. Izrá’íl (Azrael/Azrail) " in Hebrew and Islamic, lore the angel of death, stationed in the 3rd heaven.” A Dictionary of Angels. Including the Fallen Angels, compiled and edited by Gustav Davidson (London: Collier-MacMillan Ltd., 1967), p. 64. Is(z)ráfíl (Israfel) is “..the angel of resurrection and song, who will blow the trumpet of Judgment Day” (p. 151). However, neither one of these angels is mentioned by name in the Qur’án which prompts Davidson to say: “It would be incorrect therefore to identify him [Izráfíl] as a Koranic angel.” (p. 152). However, there is a clear reference to the “angel of death” in Sura 32:11: “Say: The angel of death who is charged with you shall cause you to die: then shall ye be returned to your Lord.” (Rodwell’s translation). See also Sura 2:28-29 and Sura 79:1-9.
  5. Nizámí, The Story of Layla and Majnun, translated from the Persian and edited by Dr. R. Gelpe. English version in collaboration with E. Mattin and G. Hill (Boulder, Colorado: Shambhala, 1978). From the postscript, pp. 200, 202.
  6. Nader Saiedi, Logos and Civilization . Spirit , History, and Order in the Writings of Bahá’u’lláh (Bethesda, Maryland: University Press of Maryland, 2000), p. 17.
  7. ”These two outstanding contributions to the world’s religious literature [Kitáb-i-Iqán and the Hidden Words] , occupying respectively, positions of unsurpassed preeminence among the doctrinal and ethical writings of the Author of the Bahá’í Dispensation, was added, during that same period, a treatise that may well be regarded as His greatest mystical composition, designated as the “Seven Valleys,” which He wrote in answer to the questions of Shaykh Muhyi’d Din, the Qadi of Khaniqayn, in which He describes the seven stages which the soul of the seeker must needs traverse ere it can attain the object of its existence."
      (God Passes By, p. 140)
  8. God Passes By, p. 140.
  9. .The Seven Valleys, pp. 13-15.
  10. Nicholson, p. 265. The parenthesis are in Nicholson’s translation, placed there to ensure clarity of meaning.
  11. ibid.
  12. Nicholson, p. 267.
  13. Nicholson, p. 268.
  14. .Nizámí, The Story of Layla and Majnun, p. 199.
  15. The Story of Layla and Majnun, p. 204.
  16. ibid, p. 204.
  17. ”The Problem of the Parables. Mark 4:1-20” in The Bible and Literature: A Reader, eds. David Jasper and Stephen Prickett (Oxford: Blackwell Publishers Ltd., 1999), p. 223. Article by David Jasper.
  18. A.M. Hunter in Interpreting the Parables calls this definition the “Sunday School” meaning which is not precise enough for the pundits. While this definition may lack scholarly specialisation and detail, it is still the simplest and best definition of the parable. See A. M. Hunter, Interpreting the Parables (London: SCM Press Ltd., 1960), p. 8.
  19. Roberth H. Stein, “Parables,” in The Oxford Companion to the Bible, ed. by Bruce M. Metzger ad Michael D. Coogan (New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993) p. 567.
  20. Ibid. There are two exceptions with the use of parabolé to translate mashál which are not specified by Stein.
  21. The Talmud is the first systematic rabbinical commentary on the Mishnah, the Jewish law codes. Two Talmuds exist, one originating in Israel ca. 400 CE and the other originating in exile in Babylonia ca. 500-600 CE. The subject matter varies within each Talmud.
  22. Midrash refers to a large corpus of Palestinian rabbinical commentary (ca. 70-500 CE) which is subdivided into Haggadah (narrative/homelitic) and Halakah (legal) materials. Both schools have their own exegetical methods. Haggadah employs spiritual and allegorical forms of interpretation while Halakah is legalistic.
  23. See especially “Bahá’u’lláh’s writ and its literary matrix,” The Bahá’í Studies Review, vol. 7, 1997, pp. 134-144.
  24. The opposition of the covenant-breakers defines the entire context of the tablet. ‘ Abdu’l-Bahá writes: "And in the 21st chapter and 38th verse of the Gospel of Matthew, He says: “But when the husbandmen saw the son, they said among themselves, this is the heir, come let us kill him and let us seize on his inheritance. And they caught him and cast him out of the vineyard and slew him.”. ‘Abdu’l-Bahá is clearly referring to himself as the rightful heir of Bahá’u’lláh’s covenant (the Lord of the Vineyard) and to the machinations of his opponents at the very moment he was composing the tablet. “The Master’s Last Tablet to America” in Bahá’í World Faith, p. 432.
  25. Seena Fazel and Khazeh Fananapazir, “Some Interpretive Principles in the Bahá=í Writings,” The Bahá’í Studies Review, vol. 2, no. 1, 1992, p. 5.
  26. See “Scripture” by James G. Williams in Introduction to the Study of Religion, T. William Hall, general editor (New York: Harper and Row, 1978) pp. 85-108.
  27. See, for example, Susan A. Handelman’s The Slayers of Moses: The Emergence of Rabbinic Interpretation in Modern Literary Theory (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1982), Daniel Boyarin’s Intertextuality and the Reading of Midrash (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1990) and Geoffrey H. Hartman, ‘The Struggle for the Text’, in Midrash and Literature ed. Geoffrey H. Hartman and Sanford Budick (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1986), pp. 3-23.
  28. Philip S. Alexander, “History of Interpretation” (part one only of four), The Oxford Companion to the Bible, p. 307.
  29. Bahá’u’lláh, The Kitáb i Íqán, p. 255.
  30. Alexander, “History of Interpretation,” The Oxford Companion to the Bible, p. 306.
  31. Letter of 24 February, 1947 in “The Importance of Deepening our Knowledge and Understanding of the Faith,” p. 47.
  32. Sitz im Leben (‘setting in life’) is actually a technical term originating in form critical studies of the Gospel (Formengeschhicte) by such scholars as Martin Dibelius' Form Tradition to Gospel (1935) and Rudolf Bultmann’s History of the Synoptic Tradition (1963). It refers to the teaching and worship needs of the earliest Christian communities that were influential in determining the selection, formation and transmission of scripture.
  33. .Promulgation of Universal Peace, p. 336. In speaking of the necessity of attaining divine virtues, that is, of becoming fully human, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá said: “Until this station is attained by man, his life will be utterly devoid of real outcomes. The span of his existence will pass away in eating, drinking and sleeping, without eternal fruits, heavenly traces or illumination — without spiritual potency, everlasting life or the lofty attainments intended for him during his pilgrimage through the human world.”
  34. .Roberth H. Stein, “Parables,” in The Oxford Companion to the Bible, p. 568.
  35. As reckoned by A.M. Hunter in Interpreting the Parables (p. 122) but the number will be reduced if the parable is defined more narrowly as a story-allegory.
  36. ”The story is told of a mystic knower, who went on a journey with a learned grammarian as his companion. They came to the shore of the Sea of Grandeur. The knower straightway flung himself into the waves, but the grammarian stood lost in his reasonings, which were as words that are written on water. The knower called out to him, “Why dost thou not follow?” The grammarian answered, “O Brother, I dare not advance. I must needs go back again.” Then the knower cried, “Forget what thou didst read in the books of Síbavayh and Qawlavayh, of Ibn i Hájib and Ibn i Málik,(15) and cross the water.” “The death of self is needed here, not rhetoric:/Be nothing, then, and walk upon the waves.” (The Mathnaví). Likewise is it written, “And be ye not like those who forget God, and whom He hath therefore caused to forget their own selves. These are the wicked doers.”” (Qur’án 59:19) ( Four Valleys, pp. 51 52).
  37. Aristotle, On Poetry and Style, translated, with an introduction by G. M. A. Grube (Indianapolis and New York: The Bobbs-Merrill Company, 1958).Aristotle says that AReversal (peripeteia) is a change of the situation into its opposite, and this too must accord with the probable or the inevitable." One of the examples Aristotle gives is from the Lynceus in which "...the hero is brought in to die and Danaus follows, intending to kill him, but in the event it is Danaus who dies and the other who is saved." (p. 21-22). Majnún's situation also could arguably be called “metabasis” which means a change of fortune for better or worse. Humphrey House warns that peripeteia must not be translated or paraphrased as Aa reversal of fortune" but rather as Areversal of intention". Be that as it may, both reversal and recognition apply to Majnún in that his reversal of fortune is what the reader or spectator sees and from his own point of view, he reversed his intention which was, as Bahá’u’lláh clearly alludes, to take his own life. Humphrey House, Aristotle’s Poetics (London:Rupert Hart-Davis, 1966), p 96.
  38. In the Christian tradition, see for example, Jürgen Moltmann’s Theologie der Hoffnung, an eschatological study of Christianity in the light of history. English translation by James W. Leitch , Theology of Hope. On the Ground and the Implications of a Christian Eschatology (London: SCM Press Ltd, 1967).
  39. Star of the West, vol. 20, no. 10, p. 314 in "The Importance of Deepening," p. 204.
  40. .Les pensées (Thoughts), Section 4, # 277.
  41. .The Seven Valleys, p. 9.
  42. The Seven Valleys, p. 13.
  43. Under the Divine Lote Tree, Essays and Reflections (Oxford: George Ronald, 1999) p. 53.
  44. Erich Fromm, Psychoanalysis and Religion (New York: Bantam Books, 1972), n. 9, p. 90.
  45. Erich Fromm, Psychoanalysis and Religion, 8 Yale University Press, 1950. (New York: Bantam Books, 1972), n. 9, p. 90. Citation from Schweitzer's Philosophy of Civilization (n.p. MacMillan Company, 1949), p. 79.
  46. quoted in The Seven Valleys, p. 9.
  47. The Four Valleys, p. 52. (ed. 52)
  48. The Seven Valleys, p. 41.
  49. "The Problem of the Parables. Mark 4:1-20" in The Bible and Literature: A Reader, p. 223.
  50. Bahá’u’lláh, Seven Valleys and Four Valleys, pp. 13 15.
  51. Bahá’u’lláh, Tablets of Bahá’u’lláh, p. 35.
  52. See further to this point my essay “Perfect Faith Means the Then is Now” in Under the Divine Lote Tree: Essays and Reflections (Oxford: George Ronald, 1999), pp. 57-59
  53. In Tablets of Bahá’u’lláh, p. 155.
  54. See, for example, “That Man’s Ultimate Happiness is not in this Life,” Chapter XLVIII in Introduction to Saint Thomas Aquinas, pp. 463-467.
  55. .On the Divine Names, IV, 7, para. 3, 704 in Introduction to Saint Thomas Aquinas, p. 441.
  56. Tablets of Bahá’u’lláh, p. 156.
  57. Kitáb-i-Íqán, pp. 198-199
  58. Like Heidegger, Marcel rejected the existentialist label. Although he first accepted to be called a “Christian existentialist,” so named by Étienne Gilson, by 1950 he had repudiated the title. F.H. Heinemann speculates that one reason for the repudiation was the condemnation of existentialism in the papal encyclical Humani generis (August 12, 1950). (Gabriel was a convert to Catholicism). Another reason could be the failure of the general public to distinguish Marcel’s version of Christian existentialism from that of Sartre. F.H. Heinemann, Existentialism and the Modern Predicament (New York: Harper Torchbooks, 1958), p. 150. Being and Having is a translation of Être et avoir by Katharine Farrer (London: Collins, 1965).
  59. From the title of Søren Kierkegaard’s, Fear and Trembling and the Sickness Unto Death. The Sickness Unto Death is a later, more mature version of the earlier Fear and Trembling (1843). As a study in Christian psychology, The Sickness Unto Death analyses in a philosophical perspective the condition of despair in relation to sin, but it also proposes the remedy that the self “ relating itself to its own self and by willing to be itself is grounded transparently in the Power which constituted it.” This is Kierkegaard’s definition of faith. From the translator’s introduction. Translated with introduction and notes by Walter Lowrie (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1941), third printing, 1970, p. 139.
  60. The phrase “Abraham’s bosom” is taken from the story of the beggar Lazarus and the rich man. The beggar died and was carried into Abraham’s bosom but the rich man was tormented in hell. (Luke 16:19-31).
  61. Augustine, Confessions. Books I-XIII, translation by F.J. Sheed, introduction by Peter Brown (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, 1993), (Book 1, Part 1).
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