Realms of Divine Existence as described in the Tablet of All FoodDeepen, 3.2.2, pages 11-17
Historical BackgroundThe rampant political, religious, and social corruption of the 19th century Persia provided fertile grounds for the revolutionary ideology and messianic claims of the young Siyyid 'Alí-Muhammad of Shiraz (1817-1850), known as the Báb (Gate). Persians of all social strata quickly began to respond to the prophetic call of the young messenger of Shiraz, which was raised in 1844.
Rapid proliferation of the Báb's teachings throughout the country alarmed the Persian government officials and the country's ecclesiastics to the extent that the two decided to join forces in suppressing the nascent Bábí community at all costs. Beginning in summer of 1848, the Persian government orchestrated a series of military campaigns against the Bábís which eventually culminated in public execution of the Báb Himself on July 9th, 1850.
Prior to this, the Báb, who knew His days were numbered, appointed Mírzá Yahyá (c. 1830-1912) as His nominal successor. Referred to by the Báb as Subh al-Azal (Morn of Eternity), Yahyá was the younger half-brother of Bahá'u'lláh. As attested to by Bahá'u'lláh's full-brother Mírzá Musá (Aqáy-i-Kalím) and a certain Mullá Abdu'l-Karím-i-Qazvíní, this appointment was suggested by Bahá'u'lláh, apparently to divert the attention of the enemy from Himself who, in absence of the Báb, was becoming the focal point among many Bábís.
After the martyrdom of the Báb, Bahá'u'lláh, accompanied by His family, was exiled to Baghdad, where He was later joined by Azal and a number of other Bábís. Although Azal's seclusive nature began to frustrate many Bábís, Bahá'u'lláh continued to support Azal's sagging leadership. Nevertheless, many well-known Bábís of Persia and Iraq began to question Azal's authority and his writings, which they found uninspiring and inadequate. Some went as far as making counterclaims and distributing their own materials. Yet, through all this, Bahá'u'lláh continued to lend His support to Azal both publicly and in His Writings.
As early as 1852, Bahá'u'lláh had begun to have messianic experiences and occasionally expressed these, albeit in veiled language, in some of His correspondence to the Bábís. The Tablet of All Food (Lawh-i Kull al-Ta'ám), which was revealed in late 1853 or early 1854, clearly demonstrated the superior insight of Bahá'u'lláh, while providing clear evidence of how He, despite growing factionalism within the Bábí community of Persia and knowledge of His own station, was continuing to support Azal.
The Context of RevelationThe recipient of the Tablet of All Food was a certain Hají Mírzá Kamál al-Dín Naráqí (died c. 1881). He had traveled to Iraq in the hope of meeting Azal and receiving a commentary from him on the Qur'ánic verse 3:87, which states:
"All food was lawful to the children of Israel (Jacob) save what Israel made unlawful to himself (or itself) before the Torah was sent down. Say: Bring you the Torah now, and recite it, if you are truthful."Azal prepared a commentary for Naráqí, which is evidently not extant today. Naráqí, however, was not impressed with this commentary and he proposed the same task to Bahá'u'lláh. In response, the latter revealed the Tablet of All Food. Upon reading this work, Naráqí became a devoted admirer of Bahá'u'lláh and, in later years, received many Tablets from Him.
This verse, which might have biblical roots (see Genesis 32:32)*, was revealed to establish Islam's desire to do away with the plethora of Jewish food prohibitions which, as stated by Muhammad, were not divine in origin. In asking for a commentary on Qur'án 3:87, Naráqí was perhaps attempting to get official clarification from a recognized Bábí leader regarding an issue which was causing much friction among the Persian Bábís.† In all likelihood, the issue at hand was whether, as certain gnostic‡ and elitist Bábís in Persia were claiming, the followers of the Báb could interpret Qur'án 3:87 figuratively to mean that they, as "true Israelites" for this age, could allow themselves "all food" (freedoms).3
* “Therefore the children of Israel eat not of the sinew which shrank, which is upon the hollow of the thigh, unto this day: because he touched the hollow of Jacob's thigh in the sinew that shrank.” The text preceding this verse refers to a possibly allegorical struggle between Jacob and another individual, presumably an angel, who after being defeated by Jacob, gave him the name Israel (lit. “God Strives”). The sinew referred to in the above verse is where the angel touched and healed Jacob, who had won despite having a hip that was out of joint. The prohibition against eating sinew was conceived by the Israelites and not by the command of God. –Ed.
† = In the Bayán, the Báb included certain dietary prohibitions which were subject to alteration or recension by “Him Who God Shall Make Manifest”. –Ed.
‡ = gnosticism - a belief that exalts the intellect above spirituality.
The tendency toward "liberation" from divine laws likely came from those Bábí leaders who were at the time making exalted claims for themselves to fill the leadership vacuum left by the absence of the Báb and Azal's seclusive nature. These elements probably found themselves in the dilemma of having to live with the pain of the Báb's absence and want of leadership which was destroying the Bábí community, yet they had to continue to follow the Báb's strict legalistic pronouncements. In the Tablet of All Food, Bahá'u'lláh shows His concern about the rising tide of antinomian** tendencies among certain Bábí factions by denouncing the libertine elements and their attempts to "free" the Báb's community from the "bondage" of divine law. He invites all the faithful to demonstrate unity and the strict observance of the Báb's ordinances, directs the community to follow Azal, claims nothing but servitude and lowliness for Himself, rejects and laments about the accusations by certain Bábís that He is attempting to usurp Azal's leadership, and expresses His desire to withdraw.4
** = The belief that salvation is determined by the degree of one’s faith, rather than the adherence to moral laws. –Ed.
The Style and Content of the TabletIn revealing His commentary, Bahá'u'lláh does not take the traditional Muslim approach of focusing on the actual circumstances of the revelation of Qur'án 3:87. Instead, He follows a methodology similar to earlier commentaries revealed by the Báb which is reminiscent of the style of certain Muslim sufis such as the renowned Ibnul 'Arabí (1165-1240 AD). A particular characteristic of this style is the conviction that the meanings of the Word of God revealed in holy scriptures can never be exhausted. Thus, every key word or phrase contained in Qur'án 3: 87 has an infinity of meanings in different levels or stations (maqámát) of existence for Bahá'u'lláh. Many of these meanings can apply to past historical figures, events, and circumstances. In elaborating on the significance of this verse, Bahá'u'lláh chooses two key terms — "food" (ta'ám) and "Israel", and one key phrase — "the Children of Israel", and gives each of these multiple meanings in different stations.
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Foundation for a Bahá'í Theology?Five of the nine interpretations that Bahá'u'lláh provides for the term "food" (ta'ám) refer to a hierarchy of existence that ranges from absolute existence which is the sole property of God's inner essence (realm of Háhút) to subsistence which characterizes the transitory life of physical beings in the material realm (Násút). While the roots of this hierarchy can be traced back to the cosmology of neo-platonic philosophers such as Plotinus, it closely resembles similar hierarchies of metaphysical realms found in the works of Jewish, Christian, and particularly Muslim mystics such as Ibnul 'Arabí and al-Jili, a student of his writings. Interestingly, the Báb's Writings also identify certain esoteric correspondences between various colors, precious stones, elements of creation, human life, and terrestrial existence which might be associated with Bahá'u'lláh's hierarchy of metaphysical realms. This hierarchy might eventually serve as a foundation for developing an elaborate Bahá'í theology in the future.
"Food" in the Realm of the HáhútWhile Bahá'u'lláh confirms that the worlds of God are countless in their number and infinite in their range, He only identifies five of these realms in the Tablet of All of Food and gives distinct meanings for the term "food" in each of these realms.
He begins by elucidating the meaning of "food" at the highest level of His hierarchy — the Throne (arsh) of Háhút. Háhút is the realm of "Divine Oneness" where, from time immemorial, God's unmanifested essence has been in a perfect, changeless, formless, and absolute state of existence. The word Háhút is formed according to the same pattern as similar Arabic words with spiritual connotations such as "Láhút" (Divinity). Its meaning is probably based on the first letter Ha, which stands for "Huwiyyah" or God's self-identity.6
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The realm of Háhút is the realm of the "Absolute Unknown," where
God's essence has been hidden from time immemorial and will continue to remain
so for eternity. Háhút is the realm of "HE" (huwa /Œ¶) where "the
Mystery of Mysteries" enjoys the one and only type of absolute existence. "The way
(to this realm) is barred and to seek (entry to or any knowledge of it) is
"We affirm these names and attributes not to prove the perfections of God, but to deny that He is capable of imperfections."13Here, 'Abdu'l-Bahá is following the well-established tradition of negative theology (or apophasis), which Buddha took to the extreme by adopting virtual silence about God. While many have interpreted this silence as atheism, others such as the comparative religionist Reimundo Pannikar view it as a, "sublime sign of the Buddhá's reverence for the mysterious and the ineffable."14
This negative theology also resembles a teaching of the Hindú mystic Sankará (788-820 AD) who pointed to an impersonal God without definable attributes as a higher order of being and a God with definable attributes as the Personal Lord Ishvara who was of a lower order of being.15
Thus, in regard to the unknowable nature of the hidden God (Háhút), the Bahá'í concept could be said to agree with certain Buddhist and Hindú traditions which adopt an apophatic position bordering on agnosticism.
"Food" in the Realm of LáhútBahá'u'lláh then proceeds to explain the meaning of the term "food" in the next lower realm, the realm of Láhút (Divinity). Láhút, He notes, is the realm of God revealed, or God manifest. God's knowledge of His own perfections and His love for sharing these perfections with others results in the manifestation of Divine Essence to Himself. Thus, the attributes and perfections of God which were concealed and in a stage of unrevealed potential in the realm of Háhút find existence in the realm of Láhút as God the Absolute reveals His inner Self to Himself.16 The result is the emanation of "the archetypal forms and essences of all created beings."17
Yet, since this event is entirely mystical and takes place within the Godhead, these archetypal forms and essences cannot be said to have yet achieved external existence. Thus, even in Láhút, the one and only form of existence is that of God manifest or God revealed to Himself. In the station of Láhút, manifestations can claim identity with God beyond duality. In other words, they are allowed to identify their higher nature with all the names and attributes of God (God manifest) but they are unable to claim any independent existence for themselves before the throne of God (the hidden God). Perhaps the following Islamic tradition best describes the relationship between the realms of Háhút and Láhút:
"Thou [Hidden God] art He [God Manifest] and He [God Manifest) is Thou [the Hidden God]."Háhút and Láhút are the most elevated spiritual heights. However, while Háhút is totally unknowable, Láhút is the highest "knowable realm" in which only God is disclosed to Himself and all other beings and stations are subsumed in Him. Láhút or the realm of God manifest can also be imagined as the lofty sphere of the reality of divine Manifestations and chosen ones. This reality is God's first emanation. Following the Shaykhí-Bábí tradition, Bahá'u'lláh calls this emanation the Primal Will (al mashiyya al-awalíya). The Primal Will is the first and only direct creation of the hidden God (God at the Háhút level). Everything else including the physical universe and all of its beings were generated through the Primal Will (God manifest) . 'Abdu'l-Bahá attributes the act of creation to the "Primal Will."18 Elsewhere, Bahá'u'lláh Himself affirms that the agent of creation was the Manifestation or Word of God.19
In the words of one scholar, "It would appear, therefore, that the Primal Will originates with or is present in the Manifestation of God, and in this sense they are identical."20
'Abdu'l-Bahá's cosmology identifies only three stations of existence: God, Kingdom (Manifestation/Revelation), and Creation.21 Thus, the Primal Will can not be classified above or be thought of as independent of the Manifestation.22 Therefore, "food" at the Láhút level refers to the God manifest or the Primal Will and His critical role as the agent of physical creation.
From a Bábí-Bahá'í perspective, one can find a plethora of terms used in both philosophy and religion throughout history which applies to the Primal Will — this first emanation who forever remains the one and only direct creation of God's Essence. Some of these terms are the Logos, the Only Begotten (directly generated) Son, the Word, the Word of God, the Speech of God, the Command of God, Jehovah or Yahwah, the First Mind, the First Will, the Universal Intellect, the Throne, the Most Mighty Spirit, Sophia, the Origin of the Universe, the Prime Matter, the Absolute Reality, the Simple Reality, the Holy Emanation, the Manifestation of God, the Manifestation of the Self of God, the Perfect Man, the Lord of Lords, and the Holy Spirit. The Báb and Bahá'u'lláh have also used more poetic appellations for the "Primal Will" such as "the Tongue of Grandeur," "the Speaker on Sinai," "the Ancient (Preexistent) Beauty," "Pen of the Most High," and the "Maid of Heaven."
Another well-known term that Bahá'u'lláh employs throughout His ministry to refer to the Primal Will as the agent of revelations to Him is the "Most Exalted Pen" (al Qalamu'l A'lá) — a term He borrowed from the Muslim mystic Ibnul 'Arabí.23 A number of Bahá'u'lláh's Writings contain dialogues between the Primal Will (whom He frequently images as the "Maid of Heaven," which is simply a reference to His higher Self) and His lower, human self. A well-known example of this is the Fire Tablet.
"Food" in the Realm of JabarútThe next lower world that Bahá'u'lláh identifies is the realm of Jabarút (Divine Power). Whereas in the realm of Láhút, the Manifestation is seen as the agent of creation, in the realm of Jabarút He takes on a transhistorical role and becomes the agent of spiritual sustenance (food) and salvation to man. Also at this level, as God's Vicegerent (al Khalífih), the Manifestation who enjoys a unique relationship with God is allowed to use theophanic language and identify Himself with God on the level of His attributes. Whereas in the realm of Láhút, the Manifestation does not claim any existence for Himself (by using the pronoun "I"), in the realm of Jabarút, He occupies the lofty station of the Godhead and can make the exalted claim to divinity for Himself before the world of creation:
"When I contemplate, O my God, the relationship that bindeth me to Thee, I am moved to proclaim to all created things verily I am God!"24Certain Islamic traditions affirm this type of relationship between God and the Manifestation at the Jabarút level. For instance:
"I (God manifest) verily am He (the hidden God) and He (the hidden God) is I (God manifest)."In another tradition, the Prophet Muhammad affirms a unique tie between Himself and the unknowable God which presumably applies to the station of Jabarút:
"Manifold is Our (the Prophet Muhammad's) relationship with God. At one time We are He Himself, and He is We Ourself. At another, He is that He is, and We are that We are."The realm of Jabarút is then the, "realm of the affirmation of Divinity on the part of exalted beings one level below that of the realm of the claim of identity with God beyond duality (Láhút.)"25 The Bábí and Bahá'í writings, however, confirm that this affirmation of divinity on the part of prophets should not be viewed as a claim of identify with God at the Háhút level or the incarnation of God's unknowable essence in the mortal temples of prophets and chosen ones:
"These Manifestations have each a two-fold station. One is the station of pure abstraction and essential unity. In this respect, if thou callest them all by one name, and dost ascribe to them the same attributes, thou hast not erred from the truth. Even as He hath revealed: "No distinction do We make between any of His Messengers." (Qur'án 2: 285)They, one and all, summon the people of the earth to acknowledge the unity of God, and herald unto them the Kawthar of an infinite grace and bounty.26 The first station of the manifestations — the station of pure abstraction and essential unity — would thus refer to their transhistorical roles as our saviors. To highlight this essential unity among the prophets at the Jabarút level, we can use the term Manifestation (with a capital M) to refer collectively to the founders of all the divine religions.
"Food" in the Realm of MalakútWhile Jabarút accentuates the essential unity of the prophets, Malakút points to the distinctions among them. The transhistorical role of the Manifestation in Jabarút transforms into a historical role in the lower realm of Malakút. The Manifestation (with a capital M) now projects distinct personalities, receives specific missions, and brings a particular set of teachings to predetermined places at fixed times.
"The other station (of prophets) is the station of distinction, and pertaineth to the world of creation, and to the limitations thereof. In this respect, each Manifestation of God hath a distinct individuality, a definitely prescribed mission, a predestined revelation, and specially designated limitations. Each one of them is known by a different name, and is characterized by a special attribute, fulfills a definite mission, and is entrusted with a particular Revelation."27The esoteric food (spiritual guidance) that these prophets bring to mankind nourishes and sustains man's soul and prepares him for life on his true plane of existence, which is Malakút or the Abhá Paradise; the paradise of "justice." It is called the paradise of "justice" because God's justice necessitates that in all but a few cases (such as that of unborn children) only those who have willfully chosen to receive the spiritual food and lived a holy life can enter this abode or attain this station.
"Food" in the Realm of NásútWhereas in the realm of Malakút God's "justice" rules, in the realm of Násút His "bounty" is the cause of the creation and sustenance of the physical beings. Physical life in the realm of Násút has been given to diverse forms of matter through the grace of God. Although no part of this creation has done anything to deserve this life, God, through His bounty and the instrumentality of the Primal Will, has given the physical beings undeserved life. Yet, for man, this form of life is inherently inferior to the life of the spirit in Malakút, as the former would assuredly be followed by death and decomposition while the latter is everlasting.
Man exists between the realms of Malakút and Násút. While his physical body lingers in the realm of Násút (on earth), the true plane of existence for his soul is in the Malakút. The realms of Malakút and Násút are also indicative of the dual natures of man — angelic and animal. A life of attachment to the world and its vainglories would strengthen man's animal nature and result in his failure to achieve his lofty station. A chaste and holy life, on the other hand, would reinforce his angelic side, enabling him to experience life in the Malakút while still on earth:
Those souls that in this day, enter the divine kingdom and attain everlasting life, although materially dwelling on earth, yet in reality soar in the realm of heaven. Their bodies may linger on earth but their spirits travel in the immensity of transcendent space. For as thoughts widen and become illumined, they acquire the power of flight and transport man to the Kingdom of God.28
The AftermathBahá'u'lláh read this commentary to Naráqí, but did not give it to him. While it is not precisely known why He did so, His purpose may have been to avoid further hostilities between Himself and Azal and greater divisions among the Bábís. This, however, did not dishearten Naráqí. Evidently, he was so impressed with Bahá'u'lláh's commentary that he immediately pledged allegiance to Him. The news of this event further damaged Azal's credibility and increased Bahá'u'lláh's popularity.
Azal, who was alarmed by the rising prestige of his half-brother, aided by a close companion — Siyyid Muhammad-i-Isfahání — initiated an organized campaign to regain his credibility and to portray Bahá'u'lláh as a "usurper." In His turn, Bahá'u'lláh who wanted to prevent further hostilities abruptly left Baghdad for the mountains of Sulaymániyyih on April 10, 1854.
ConclusionFor a number of reasons, the Tablet of All Food occupies a special place among Bahá'u'lláh's Writings. Beyond its obvious purpose, it played a distinct role in defining the leadership of the Bábí community during the first year of Bahá'u'lláh's stay in Iraq and its perusal sheds light on a number of events.
Furthermore, this work provides valuable insights into Bahá'u'lláh's state of mind in the turbulent decade of the 1850s. For instance, in one place, Bahá'u'lláh expresses his longing for Quddús, his companionship, and the comfort his presence would have given Him had he been alive. His anguish was perhaps due to the intense pressure resulting from the martyrdom of the Báb and His heroes and heroines; the rise of factionalism among the Bábís, Azal's failure to unify the faithful and accusations leveled against Him; and a life of exile in a foreign land. Lastly, though no authoritative translation of this Tablet is yet available, it must be classified among the richest theological works of Bahá'u'lláh and will no doubt be an invaluable resource to future Bahá'í scholars who will help define a clear Bahá'í theology.
[Notes 1-2 do not exist]
3) Lambden, Stephen. "A Tablet of Mírzá H.usayn 'Alí Bahá'u'lláh of the Early Iraq period: The Tablet of All Food," Bahá'i Studies Bulletin, vol. 3, no. 1 (June 1984), p. 7
4) Ibid., pp. 8-10
5) Ibid., pp. 11-12
6) Cole, Juan R. "Bahá'u'lláh and the Naqshbandi Sufis in Iraq." In Cole, Juan R. & Moojan Momen. From Iran East & West: Studies in Bábí & Bahá'i History. Los Angeles: Kalimát Press, 1984, pp. 12-13
7) McLean, J. A. "Prolegomena to a Bahá'í Theology." The Journal of Bahá'í Studies, vol. 5, no. 1 (March-June 1992)," p. 58.
8) Momen, Moojan. "Relativism: A Basis for Bahá'í Metaphysics," In Momen, Moojan (Editor), Studies in the Bábí and Bahá'í Religions (Volume Five). Los Angeles: Kalimát Press, 1988, p. 190.
9) McLean, pp. 55-56.
10) Táhirzádeh, Adíb. The Revelation of Bahá'u'lláh, Vol. I. Oxford: George Ronald, Publisher, 1974, p. 58.
11) 'Abdu'l-Bahá, Some Answered Questions. Wilmette: Bahá'í Publishing Trust, 1981, p. 147.
12) Ibid., p. 148.
14) McLean, p. 54.
15) Ibid., p. 55.
16) Momen, p. 191
18) 'Abdu'l-Bahá, p. 203.
19) Bahá'u'lláh. Tablets of Bahá'u'lláh. Haifa, Israel: Bahá'í World Center, 1978, p. 141.
20) McLean, p. 59.
21) 'Abdu'l-Bahá, p. 295.
22) McLean, p. 59.
23) Afifi, A. E. The Mystical Philosophy of Muhyid Dín-Ibnul 'Arabí. New York: AMS Press, Inc. 1974, p. 66.
24) Táherzádeh, p. 59.
25) Lambden, p. 44.
26) Momen, P. 193.
27) Momen, P. 194.
28) 'Abdu'l-Bahá. Selections From the Writings of 'Abdu'l-Bahá. Haifa, Israel: Bahá'í World Center, 1978, p. 202.
29) Lambden, pp. 64-65.