Tablet of the Sacred Night (Lawh Laylat al-Quds)
by Bahá'u'lláhtranslated by Juan Cole
While it is customary for Bahá'ís to have community gatherings on the evening of May 22 to celebrate the declaration of the Bab, it is clear that another complex of individual and group means of celebrating that day was encouraged by Bahá'u'lláh. Surprisingly, these practices are especially associated with Bahá'í Sufis or dervishes (daravish, `urafa'), and involve prayers specifically revealed for this occasion and the custom of staying up most of the night of the 22nd, praying and chanting remembrances (dhikr) of God.
`Abdu'l-Hamid Ishraq-Khavari tells us in his survey of Bahá'u'lláh's Tablets, Ganj-i Shayigan (Tehran: BPT, 124 B.E.), pp. 209-210, that the "Tablets of the Sacred Night (Alwah Laylat al-Quds)" were revealed in `Akka by Bahá'u'lláh with the intention that Bahá'í dervishes or Sufis should treat that night as a festival and read these Tablets.
In his encyclopaedic work, Rahiq-i Makhtum, 2 vols. (Tehran: BPT, ), 2:296, Ishraq-Khavari identifies the "Sacred Night" as none other than the night of the Bab's declaration (bi`that), and reaffirms that Bahá'u'lláh said it was good to stay up that night.
Of the Tablets of the Sacred Night, only one has, to my knowledge, been printed, (Bahá'u'lláh, "Lawh Laylat al-Quds," in A.H. Ishraq-Khavari, ed., Risalih- 'i Tasbih va Tahlil [New Delhi: Bahá'í Publishing Trust, 1982], pp. 174-181). The affinities of this short Tablet (which is really an extended supplication to God) with Sufi thought and practice, are evident. The first paragraph refers to the sufferings of the prophets, evoking the Egyptian Sufi mystic `Umar Ibn al-Farid's "Poem of the Way," which likewise details the tribulations of God's messengers. Human beings are characterized as "poor," the word the Sufis humbly used to describe themselves. Attaining nearness (qurb) to God and even the divine Presence (liqa') are mentioned as goals, and the language here is shared between Sufism and Babism.
The Sufi practice of staying up late praying is referred to when Bahá'u'lláh says, "I beseech Thee to look, O my Beloved, with Thy generous gaze, upon these persons, who are sleepless during this Night that Thou hast designated a festival for Thy creatures, wherein Thou shonest forth by Thy Name, the All-Merciful, upon the entire contingent world, and wherein the Beauty of Thy Divinity mounted the Throne of Forgiveness." In Sufism, such ceremonies were held on the "Laylat al-Qadr," the Night of Power upon which Muhammad was believed to have received the Qur'an from the angel Gabriel. Bahá'u'lláh has moved such observances to the equivalent night in the Babi-Bahá'í religion, the "Laylat al- Quds" or Night of Holiness, when the Bab is believed to have revealed himself to Mulla Husayn Bushru'i.
The mystical path in Sufism is characterized by a strong emotional component in worship. Bahá'u'lláh evokes this aspect of that path when he calls upon God to "endue their yearning with ardent passion." Another goal of Sufism is to attain a mystical knowledge (`irfan) of God. Bahá'u'lláh in the beginning of the Most Holy Book makes attainment of such mystical knowledge of God one of two prerequisites for salvation. In the Tablet of the Sacred Night, however, he reminds the Sufis that God singled out His Messengers for the mystical knowledge (`irfan) of His Self, a reference to the Bahá'í doctrine that the Manifestation of God stands in the place of the Self of God in the lower realms of being.
Sufis lay stress on achieving a powerful understanding of God's Unity (tawhid), which is, again, a repeated theme of this Tablet. Moreover, they employ sometimes scandalous metaphors for the spiritual drunkenness they seek, and Bahá'u'lláh here also evokes these literary themes when he says, "Yes, my Beloved: give them to drink of the cup of life from the hand of this Youth in this garden," representing himself as the wine-server or "saqi." He speaks of the supererogatory worship of the Sufis, urging that they "may make mention of Thee at eventide and sunrise," though such practices are also urged of all Bahá'ís in the Most Holy Book.
Sufis tended to seek to focus all their concentration upon God, finding Him in all things and using breathing and other meditation techniques to heighten their awareness of the divine. These practices are probably alluded to in the phrases, "that they might not speak save with love for Thee nor draw a breath save with devotion to Thee nor turn their faces toward any direction save the realm of Thy compassion and generosity, nor raise their hands save toward the heaven of Thy glory and nobility, nor open their eyes save to the marvels of the effulgence of the lights of Thy joy." Continual awareness of God, in every word one speaks, in every breath one takes, in every sight one sees, is an aspiration of mystics in many traditions, not only Sufis but also the Greek hesychasts, for instance.
Finally, Bahá'u'lláh refers toward the end of this Tablet to the Bahá'í ideals of unity, asking God to remove from the Bahá'í mystics gathered on the Sacred Night every vestige of "contention" (ikhtilaf). Their words, he says, should be such as to guide others to the court of God's love. The mystics in their devotions should become "as one soul." This mystical unity of worshippers mirrors the divine Oneness (tawhid), reflecting in the sublunar realm an attribute of God Himself. In the translation I offer below of this Tablet, I have presented it visually as a prose poem or psalm,which I think comes closer to conveying the lyrical quality and resort to rhymed prose that characterizes much of it, and underlines that this is a text meant to bechanted.
`Abdu'l-Bahá mentions a similar but distinct custom in Memorials of the Faithful (Wilmette: BPT, 1971), pp. 36-38, in his biography of Darvish Sidq-`Ali, the Bahá'í Sufi and companion of Bahá'u'lláh.
While in the barracks, Bahá'u'lláh set apart a special night and He dedicated it to Darvish Sidq-`Ali. He wrote that every year on that night the dervishes should bedeck a meeting place, which should be in a flower garden, and gather there to make mention of God. He went on to say that "dervish" does not denote those persons who wander about, spending their nights and days in fighting and folly; rather, He said, the term designates those who are completely severed from all but God, who cleave to His laws, are firm in His Faith, loyal to His Covenant, and constant in worship (p. 38). The date of this commemoration according to Fadil Mazandarani, Amr va Khalq is 2 Rajab of the Muslim calendar.
The nineteenth century Iranian Bahá'í community was divided into orders, as was Qajar society as a whole. There were Bahá'ís of high civil rank associated with the government, as officials and even provincial governors, known as the nawkar class. There were Bahá'í `ulama or Learned, who had a seminary training and often continued to wear the robes and turban of the clergy. There were Bahá'í tujjar or great merchants, Bahá'í artisans, and Bahá'í peasants. Among these orders were the Bahá'í `urafa' or mystics. These included eminent believers such as Darvish Sidq-`Ali, Ahmad Yazdi (the recipient of the Tablet of Ahmad), and Mishkin-Qalam (a member of the Ni`matu'llahi Sufi order). The Tablets of the Sacred Night and the practice of staying up that night and chanting prayers appear to have concerned this order in particular, though obviously they were available to all Bahá'ís. Mystics in the Middle East were known for performing extra acts of worship, such as "nawafil" or additional obligatory prayers beyond the five, and the late-night observance of the Declaration of the Bab appears to fall into this category of supererogatory acts of worship.
These customs, ordained by Bahá'u'lláh, appear to have ceased in the twentieth century Iranian community, but it is unclear upon what basis. Certainly, if Bahá'u'lláh ordained them, they cannot be abrogated. Ishraq-Khavari in Ganj, cited above, says that the practice of staying up all night to chant the Tablet of the Sacred Night on the anniversary of the Declaration of the Bab was "discontinued." He does not, however, say who discontinued it or by what authority. Sociologically, one could point to the decline of an order-based society and the rise of a class society in Pahlavi Iran, such that statuses like Bahá'í learned and mystics ceased to exist as separate categories with distinctive customs and dress. Sufism itself declined in the Middle East as an organized movement, though some groups, such as the upper-class Ni`matu'llahis, remained as a vigorous minority. The process in the 1920s and 1930s whereby Shoghi Effendi attempted to wean Bahá'ís away from dual membership in other religious bodies led to the end of any membership by Bahá'ís in Sufi orders. Nor do there appear to have been any special-interest societies with a mystical tendency within the Bahá'í community, though individuals with a strong orientation toward `Attar, Rumi, and Bahá'u'lláh's Seven Valleys and other mystical works continued to exist. (Such a special-interest society could in principle be formed.) There is to my knowledge no bar to Bahá'ís informally gathering together to stay up late the night of 22 May in order to say this and other prayers.
Tablet of the Sacred Night
This Tablet descended from the Realm of Holiness on the Sacred Night. His Word, Exalted may He be:
He is the Most Glorious
Praise be to Thee, O my God. I call upon Thee by Thy Name, whereby Thou didst save Adam from Satan, and didst deliver Noah from the deluge, Abraham from the flames, Moses from Pharaoh, the Spirit of God (Jesus) from the Jews, and Muhammad from the Abu Jahl of that time;
And by Thy Name, by means of which the breezes of Thy munificence wafted over the bodies of contingent beings and the sun of Thy loving-kindness rose on all who dwell upon the earth and in the heavens;
And by Thy Name, whereby every poor one standing before the gate of the city of Thy wealth gained self-sufficiency, everyone abased before the manifestations of Thy grandeur gained honor, and everyone remote from the wonders of Thy grace and beneficence drew nigh;
And by Thy Name, whereby the Daystar dawned above the horizon of thy glorious Providence, the pavilions of splendor were raised in the realm of Thy charity, and the trees of divine Unity were planted in the garden of Thy benevolence;
Then by Thy Name, whereby all faces turned toward the Countenance of Oneness, all souls advanced toward the shore of Thy majestic Nearness and Presence, whereby the hearts of the Near Ones were launched like birds into the atmosphere of Thine imposing Greatness, and the intellects of the Sanctified Ones quaffed from the chalice of Thy Sublimity.
By Thy Name I beseech Thee to look, O my Beloved, with Thy generous gaze, upon these persons, who are sleepless during this Night that Thou hast designated a festival for Thy creatures, wherein Thou shonest forth by Thy Name, the All-Merciful, upon the entire contingent world, and wherein the Beauty of Thy Divinity mounted the Throne of Forgiveness.
Praise be to Thee! I beseech Thee by this Night, and by them who remained wakeful during it to send down upon them the most perfect good, the finest beneficence, the richest treasure, the most exquisite beauty, the most evident revelation, the soundest utterance, the most enduring sovereignty, the most flawless word, the most ancient grace, the most potent sign, the Greatest Name, the most ideal benevolence, the most glorious Glory, the most sublime splendor, the most mighty power, the most clear authorization, the most abiding Book, the most fruitful fruits.
For they have, O my God, gathered around Thee on the Day whereon all the inhabitants of earth have scattered and deserted Thee. They have set out for Thy shrine when all have turned away from it.
I ask Thee at this time, O my God, to transform their grief into a joy that Thou bestowest upon them, and their distress into a delight that deriveth from Thee. Then impart to them, O my God, from the clouds of Thy mercy, showers whereby there shall grow in their breasts the plants of wisdom and the herbs of the garden of Thy divine Unity.
Then render them, O my Beloved, unswerving in Thy love and Thy Cause in such wise that were all the denizens of the heavens to hinder them, they would pay no heed to any of them, but would set out, both secretly and publicly, toward the domain of Thy loving-kindness and graciousness. Then honor them, O my Beloved, with Thy Most Great Presence on the Day whereon Thou seatest Thyself, by Thy Beauty, upon the Throne of Eternity, the Day whereon the feet of the wise stumble and all those dwelling on earth and in heaven are perturbed.
Therefore, O My God, leave them not by themselves; take their hands by the supremacy of Thy grace, then resurrect them in the presence of Thy regal generosity. Send them forth, O my Beloved, to that which Thou didst desire for them by the majesty of Thine eternity. For this is that Good that shall never have any peer or likeness in all creation; and verily, Thou art Powerful over all things.
Praise be to Thee, my Beloved. I ask Thee by Thy hidden Name, then by Thy concealed description and Thine impregnable mystery, not to deprive them of the billowing seas of Thy unicity. Bring them, O my Goal, aboard the ship of Thy Grandeur, nor deprive them, O my Desire, of that which is with Thee. Then reveal to them what will soothe their breasts, delight their hearts, render their souls upright, cause their tongues to speak forth, cause their hearts to soar, solace their eyes, give hearing to their ears, and endue their yearning with ardent passion, that they might be attracted by the breezes of Thy glorious verses, to which none hath attained save those whom Thou didst single out for the mystical knowledge of Thy Self; whom Thou didst select to receive the treasures of Thy resplendent Unity; whom Thou didst advance in order to make manifest Thy Cause and Thy sovereignty; whom Thou didst render the dawning-point of Thy Being in Thy lands, the rising-place of Thine eternity among Thy creatures and the manifestation of Thy divinity between Thy heaven and Thy earth.
Thou art, verily, Powerful to do as Thou desirest and Exalted in accomplishing Thy will. None can resist Thy command or repulse Thy decree. Thou doest what Thou willest by Thine authority and decreest what Thou desirest by Thy seal. Verily, Thou art the All-Seeing, the Omniscient, the Giving, the Bestower, the Beloved, the Gracious.
Then bless, O my God, those who have believed in Thee, and in Thy signs and in Thy Beauty that gleameth forth between Thy earth and Thy heaven. Then sever them, O my God, from all besides Thee, and entice them to the court of Thy Grandeur. Verily, Thou art the Forgiving, the Loving, the Reviver, the Resuscitator, the Mighty, the All-Conquering, the Omnipotent.
Praise be to Thee, O my god. I beseech Thee by Thy Name whereby the oceans of Thy names have swelled in the realm of Thine attributes, so that the sun of Thy decree might appear in the East above the horizon of Thy judgment; and whereby the moon of Thy Plan hath striven to rise above the horizon of the realm of Thy command, to gather these persons together, O my Beloved, under the shade of the tree of Thy Oneness. Then nourish them in secret, O my God, with the wonders of the favor bestowed by Thy uniqueness; that they may taste thereof, just as they sought aid publicly from the wonders of the bounties of Thy divinity.
Then send down upon their hearts, O my Beloved, what will purify them from all else save Thee and bring them nigh unto the hidden sanctuary of Thy good-pleasure and the source of Thy Will, that they might not speak save with love for Thee nor draw a breath save with devotion to Thee nor turn their faces toward any direction save the realm of Thy compassion and generosity, nor raise their hands save toward the heaven of Thy glory and nobility, nor open their eyes save to the marvels of the effulgence of the lights of Thy joy.
Yes, my Beloved: give them to drink of the cup of life from the hand of this Youth in this garden, that they may be severed from the temple of Satan and be agreed upon Thy Cause in these times, and may make mention of Thee at eventide and sunrise in the shade of Thy grace, O Benefactor, O Revealer of the Bayan and Countenance of the All-Praised and Creator of the contingent world.
Then I beseech Thee, O my Beloved, to remove all contention from among them, and clothe them in the garment of Thy loving-kindness and the robe of Thy kindness, in such wise that they shall not speak save of the wonders of the tokens of Thy Self-subsistence, nor shall there waft from them anything save that by which contingent beings will be guided to the court of Thy love, that they might ascend into the atmosphere of nearness to Thy Unity and soar into the expanse of Thy sacred uniqueness; and that they might thereby be united in the precincts of Thy mercy, becoming as one soul before the city of Thy Grandeur.
Then I beseech Thee, O my God, to cleanse their hearts from the grime of contingent things, and the dust of beings so that the mirrors of their hearts might be polished and therein can be reflected the marvels of the light of Thy scintillating Beauty. Verily, Thou art the Giving, the Unshakeable, the Omniscient, and Thou art Powerful over all things.