by Moojan Momen and Todd Lawsonpublished in Encyclopaedia Iranica
New York: Columbia University, 2005
LAWḤ "tablet," a term used distinctively in the Bahai writings as part of the title of individual compositions of Bahāʾ-Allāh addressed to individuals or groups of individuals. In popular, but probably inaccurate, usage, it is also used to refer to similar writings of cAbd-al-Bahāʾ and sometimes Shoghi Effendi. The Bāb did not specifically designate any of his works as lawḥ, though he occasionally referred to his writings in a generic way as alwāḥ/tablets (see for example, Bayān-e fārsi, wāḥad 3, bāb 14). The usage is traceable to the Koran, specifically the Tablets of the Law revealed to Moses on Mt. Sinai (Koran 7:145, 150, 154). In the singular, the Koran also knows the Preserved Tablet, Lawḥ-e maḥfuz (Koran 85:22), frequently identified with the Mother Book (omm al-ketāb, Koran 3:7, 13:39, 43:4). Its use in the titles of works by Bahāʾ-Allāh would appear to be for the purpose of emphasizing their revealed nature, as is the case with his use of other similar technical terms in the titles of his works, such as sura, ṣaḥifa and even ketāb. The word lawḥ can also be considered as forming a connection with Bahāʾ-Allāh’s designation of himself as the Qalam-e Aʿlā (the Most Exalted Pen), the two thus forming a metaphor for the active force and that which is its recipient, described by Bahāʾ-Allāh, in the Lawḥ-e Ḥekmat, as the cause of creation (TB/T = Majmuʿa-i az alwāḥ-e Jamāl-e Aqdas-e Abhā ke baʿd az Ketāb-e Aqdas nāzel šoda, 82-3; TB/E = Tablets of Bahāʾuʾllāh revealed after the Aqdas, 140).
As far as the term lawḥ is concerned, it must be stated at the outset that it is by no means easy to find a simple definition for it as it is used to designate Bahai writings. For example, some tablets are extended prose treatments of specific topics, and assume the proportions of a small book. Others are very brief prayers or personal communications from Bahāʾ-Allāh to various individuals. Some instances, the designation in English and other languages differs from the original (for example, the Sūra-ye ḡoṣn is usually known in English as the Tablet of the Branch). Finally, there is a sense in which all of the writings of Bahāʾ-Allāh are universally designated as Alwāḥ or Tablets. In this general sense, they are loosely described by B ahāʾ-Allāh as comprising 100 volumes (Epistle to the Son of the Wolf 115) and over 7,000 tablets of Bahāʾ-Allāh have been collected and authenticated by the Bahaʾi World Centre (personal communication, 3 Feb. 2004). Only a small proportion of these have been published and an even smaller number translated. A great deal of work still remains before these writings are cataloged, authenticated, dated, contextualized, analyzed, and critical editions prepared.
As for literary style, Bahāʾ-Allāh was a great admirer of Mirzā Abol-Qāsem Farahāni Qāʾem-maqām, who had striven to free Persian “official epistolography from the arrant bombast and rhetorical jugglery that made it sound so ridiculous” (Rypka, p. 335). B ahāʾ-Allāh’s Persian can thus be seen, from the literary viewpoint, as part of the 19th century literary “Return"” (bāzgašt) movement, which aimed for a return to the simplicity and conciseness of pre-Mongol Persian prose. Thus E.G. Browne hailed Bahāʾ-Allāh’s Ketāb-e iqān as being “as concise and strong in style as the Chahār Maqāla, composed some seven centuries earlier” (Literary History 2:89). Nevertheless, Bahāʾ-Allāh’s Persian presents difficulties for modern Iranians, filled as it is with Arabic words and phrases and often even long passages in Arabic. Bahāʾ-Allāh’s Arabic also reaches a very high literary standard in places: in the latter part of the Lawḥ solṭān and the first part of the Lawḥ-e ḥekmat (see below), for example.
In this brief survey of the form and contents of some of the most important and well-known Tablets, we will restrict ourselves to discussing works whose titles carry this designation in the original Arabic or Persian. Some seventy separate works with this designation are listed in successive volumes of The Bahaʾi World (see for example 14:461-62) and well over fifty are noticed and/or discussed in Taherzadeh (RB = Revelation of Bahāʾuʾllāh). We will describe here a few from each of the five major periods of Bahāʾ-Allāh’s ministry (Lawḥ -e in the title of these works has been abbreviated to L.).
Baghdad (1853-63). The earliest composition of Bahāʾ-Allāh’s carrying this designation is probably the L. Koll al-ṭaʿām (Arabic; MA = Māʾada-ye āsmāni 4:265-76; see also IK = Ishrāq-Khāvari, “The Writings of Bahaāʾuʾllāh,” 14:622-23) written shortly before the author went to Kurdistan in 1854 as an extended commentary on the Koranic verse 3:93, in which, among other matters, he relates the word “food” to five metaphysical realms. As with several of Bahāʾ-Allāh’s compositions of this period, the style is abstruse, employing the allusive terminology found throughout the writings of the Bāb and the Šayḵiya, together with standard Sufi technical terms. It is generally held that this Tablet was seen by Mirzā Yaḥyā Azal, the Bāb’s nominee, as a threat to his authority. Bahāʾ-Allāh went into seclusion for two years as a result of the ensuing disunity within the Baghdad refugee Bābi community.
The L. Madinat al-tawḥid (Arabic, ca 1858, MA 4:313-29; partial trans. Gleanings 24:59-60; see also RB 1:109-19 and IK 14:627) is an extended treatment of the theological problem of the unity and transcendence of God and of humankind’s knowledge of God. Here, the Bahai concept of the manifestation of God takes center stage as the solution to this problem.
The L. Āyat al-nur (also known as the Tafsir-e ḥorufāt-e moqaṭṭa’a, Arabic, MA 4:49-86; see also RB 1:125 and IK 14:627) is a work of moderate length, written at the request of a follower wanting an explanation of the famous Light Verse of the Koran (24:35) and also an explanation of the mysterious disconnected letters of the Koran.
The L. Ḥuriya (Arabic, AQA = Āṭār-e Qalam-e Aʿla2 2:647-53; poor trans. in Bahāʾi Scriptures 249-51; see also IK 14:626, Walbridge, Sacred Acts, 159-61) is in the form of a dramatic dialogue between the Maid of Heaven and the Youth (Bahāʾ-Allāh); this form occurs in several other tablets. In the course of this tablet, which is charged with very powerful imagery and motifs, Bahāʾ-Allāh expresses the loneliness and despair he feels as a bearer of divine revelation to an unresponsive and hostile humanity. The Maiden, a symbol of ineffable divine beauty, seeks to comfort him and encourage him as he languishes in the midst of sorrows so intense it has caused both his heart and liver to be consumed.
The L. Fetna (may be from the Edirne period, Arabic, MA 4:261-65; see also RB 1:128-29, 136-37) is addressed to one S3ams-e Jehān, agrand-daughter of Fatḥ ʿAli Shāh (who took the pen-name Fetna), a close friend of the remarkable Bābi heroine, Ṭāhera. The theme of this tablet is the trials and tribulations (sing. fetna) that face the devoted believer in the new religion.
The L. Mallāḥ al-qods (The Tablet of the Holy Mariner, Arabic & Persian, 5th day of Naw Ruz, 1863; AQA 4:335-41; trans. Bahaʾi Prayers 319-27; see also RB 1:228-44 and Sours, Tablet) is composed in two parts, the first in Arabic sajʿ, employing a standard refrain after each verse; the second in Persian prose. The Persian functions as something of a gloss on the earlier Arabic, which is not a little obscure in places. The basic theme is that of the appearance of the manifestation of divine beauty (the Holy Mariner) to the world and the ensuing rejection by those unable to recognize this beauty. The Maid of Heaven laments this cruel fate and attempts to comfort the Mariner.
Read the rest of this article, including discussion of many other tablets, online at www.iranica.com/articles/lawh.