Review of: Towards the Summit of Reality: An Introduction to the Study of Bahá'u'lláh's Seven Valleys and Four Valleys
George Ronald, 2003
Ismael Velasco (unpublished)
Julio Savi’s beautiful commentary of Baha’u’llah’s foremost mystical work, the Seven Valleys, and the related mystical treatise, the Four Valleys, is a significant addition to the growing body of Baha’i literature devoted to unveiling the mysteries of the Baha’i writings. A well researched, serious scholarly work, it remains accessible to the general reader, and has much to recommend it to both the beginner and the specialist reader.
The Seven Valleys is a treatise chronicling the seven stages of the soul’s progress toward union with God, while the Four Valleys deals with the four types of seekers after that supreme goal. Both were written to leading exponents of Sufism (the principal Islamic mystical tradition), living in Kurdistan, and unaware of the formidable claims of the Bab, or the impending declaration by Baha’u’llah to be the Bab’s Promised One, Him Whom God Shall make manifest. As such, these two treatises of Baha’u’llah have been written as classic Sufi treatises written by a fellow Sufi, rather than as openly Babi or proto-Baha’i texts, using the stylistic conventions and technical vocabulary of Sufism, and citing as authorities not only the Qur’an, but also many of the most venerated Sufi poets and writers across the centuries. At the same, time, Baha’u’llah’s expositions remain distinctive, full of hidden allusions to His own impending Revelation, and adumbrated within the parameters of the doctrinal framework Baha’u’llah fully set out in the celebrated Book of Certitude.
Clearly, like most, arguably all of the Baha’i scriptures, these two treatises can be read without any further context, standing on their own inherent clarity and inspiration above and beyond the technical terminology, literary allusions, messianic intimations and doctrinal context they address. The fact that they stand out among the first and most widely translated works of Baha’u’llah, and their many reprints, editions and popularity, attest to their wide accessibility as stand-alone spiritual and literary masterworks. On the other hand, not only one’s intellectual grasp, but potentially also one’s aesthetic an spiritual experience of the texts may be considerably enhanced by finding the many nuances, depths and allusions that will reward the efforts made by any careful student of the Baha’i writings to understand their linguistic, literary and doctrinal context. Mr. Savi’s book is the most comprehensive attempt so far made in the English language to unravel the context and allusions of these unique emanations of Baha’u’llah’s pen.
Savi’s book is divided into sections. The first one deal with an introduction to Sufism. This is a masterly introduction to the subject for the beginner, giving a wonderful overview of major themes, figures and historical developments, treading a fine balance between covering a sufficient array of themes, and getting into sufficient detail to avoid superficiality of treatment, and on the whole, succeeds brilliantly. For the specialist, some of the generalizations and conclusions in this section might be on occasion contestable, as would be the case in any general treatment, but Dr. Savi’s judicious and extensive use of the secondary literature and translated texts is at once rigorous and robust, and he will generally be in good expert company in his conclusions even when they might not be unanimous. For those well acquainted with the relevant academic literature in English, moreover, Savi’s book is additionally enriching in bringing to bear the work of some of Italy’s great Islamicist, foremost among them the late Baha’i scholar Alessandro Bausani.
The second section of Mr. Savi’s book moves from the broad historical and doctrinal context of Sufism as a whole, to the specific literary and doctrinal context of the Seven valleys and the Four Valleys. This is the section most likely to interest more experienced scholars of the Baha’i writings, as it meticulously tracks down the many mystical poems and citations that occur throughout the texts. Here again, a major contribution to Baha’i textual scholarship in English lies in Dr. Savi’s thorough engagement with the relevant scholarly literature in Persian, notably Dr. Vahid Rafati, head of the Research Department of the Universal House of Justice since …, and Dr. Radhmer, both of whom have produced foundational treatises tracing the literary references in the Baha’i Writings in general and the Seven and Four Valleys in particular. This has permitted, in several cases, corrections to the attributions published in current authorized translations of the two treatises. Dr. Savi has gone further than simply locating the correct attributions and original references, however, he has frequently provided translations of preceding and subsequent verses, enabling the reader to grasp allusions that Baha’u’llah would have expected the original recipients to understand, and which the Western reader only now has the opportunity to learn. These translations come, either from existing translations, or else are original and beautifully crafted translations done by Dr. Savi himself in collaboration with.
The third section of Mr. Savi’s book addresses itself to the doctrinal content of the works themselves, that is, what it means exactly, according to Baha’u’llah, to “journey from the above of dust to the heavenly homeland” of union with God, and what it does not mean, and what the meaning of the different stages might be. To arrive at answers to these questions, Dr. Savi not only reads closely the texts themselves, but, places their discussion of different concepts, such as union with God, the mediatory role of the Manifestations of God, the concept of spiritual stations, etc. in the context of both, longstanding debates in Sufi philosophy, which Baha’u’llah’s commentaries implicitly address, and the closest literary model for the Seven Valleys, namely Attar’s Conference of Birds, which also includes the selfsame trajectory of seven valleys, with the very same names. It is a pity that, while occasional mention is made of the Gems of Divine Mysteries, a treatise of Baha’u’llah including a very similar trajectory along very similar valleys, and accordingly perhaps the most relevant Baha’i scriptural text to the discussion, there is next to no detailed comparison of these texts, as compared to the attention received by Attar’s equally or less relevant work. Dr. Savi’s work, on the other hand, fully prepares the way for relating the Seven Valleys and Gems of Divine Mysteries in future work, and, in contextualizing the former, contextualizes in significant measure the latter also.
Again, some of Dr. Savi’s conclusions, as is natural and healthy in scholarly endeavour, are subject to debate. One particular example is the thorny question of whether the 4 Valleys may be identified with the “four gates of the heart” which Baha’u’llah mentions as following on upon completion of the Seven Valleys, and which Baha’u’llah leaves to another time to discuss further. Dr. Savi here, as previously, comes down in favour of the identification, a conclusion which other scholars have found questionable, as does the present reviewer.
The fourth section, is the one most likely to attract the general reader, and, given each section, although inter-related, might also be said to stand alone, this might be a good place to start reading Dr. Savi’s book for those whose main attraction to the Seven and Four Valleys lies in their pure spirituality. This, as the most subjective of all sections, is also the most tentative, couched in hesitation throughout, and yet is often exquisite and illuminating, as one senses, beyond the serious and extended intellectual study of the works evident throughout, also Dr. Savi speaking from his own very personal, extended spiritual journey of contemplative meditation of these, in the end, ineffably mystical texts. And thus, in this section particularly, to Dr. Savi’s intellectual gifts, one sense the more intangible presence of personal wisdom, as he bravely essays to provide bridges for the seeker into an existential understanding and relationship with each of the increasingly mysterious valleys. If in previous sections one is in dialogue with centuries of spiritual tradition, in the final section one is in dialogue with another heart, which, to this reader at least, is always a privilege.
- Further explorations in English of these important texts, include Saiedi’s Logos and Civilization, and Chris Buck’s Paradise and Paradigm
- Cf Wiegly