Ridvan I Reflections

O Pen!
Reflections on Surih al-Qalam
(Surih of the Pen) *

by Sandra Lynn Hutchison

1. Introduction

Bahá’u’lláh’s pen — perhaps among the most enigmatic and mysterious of objects in the world of creation. A simple reed pen — qalam, in Arabic — held between the fingers of the Manifestation of God or by His amanuensis, served as the instrument through which a new revelation of the divine Word flowed and was delivered to the world. A pen that bears witness, calls out, weeps, and groans. A pen that raises its voice between earth and heaven. A pen that swoons away at the power of the words it renders. A pen so closely identified with the process of revelation, the creative function of the Manifestation of God, that it comes to symbolize the Manifestation Himself: the Manifestation becomes His Pen and the pen becomes that marvellously gifted instrument through which He reveals the Word of God to humanity.

In His Suriy-i- Qalam, or Surih of the Pen, Bahá’u’lláh engages in a probing and extended meditation on His own awakening as He assumes His divinely ordained station as the Pen of Revelation. Throughout the surih, the reader is privy to a series of interchanges between Bahá’u’lláh as that Pen of Revelation and the Divine Voice that commands the Pen to write, and also, as the surih progresses, between Bahá’u’lláh as Pen and His muse, the Maid of Heaven. The intensity of the utterance, the tone of immediacy sustained throughout, together with the frequent shifts in mood and voice, as the Divine Voice speaks to the Pen, may give readers the sense that they are present at the very moment of the revelation of this surih. The extraordinary self-consciousness with which Bahá’u’lláh reflects in it upon the revelation He is receiving, and His re-enactment, at the end of the surih, of His encounter with the holy spirit in the form of the Maid of Heaven, makes this surih one of the most powerful evocations of Bahá’u’lláh’s assumption of His prophetic mission currently available to readers of English language translations of Bahá’u’lláh’s Writings.

Little is known about the date or circumstances of the revelation of this surih, but the various references within it to the Festival of Ridvan, together with its largely celebratory tone and theme, suggest that it was written in commemoration of this occasion. Moreover, the exuberance with which Bahá’u’lláh celebrates His Pen in the surih, suggests that it might be located in the Edirne period, the five years of almost mind-boggling productivity that immediately followed His declaration in the Garden of Ridvan. His preoccupation with the “unbelievers” further links this surih to the Edirne years, during which Bahá’u’lláh was subject to growing opposition from members of His family as He began to assert His divine authority in a more public way. It was in Edirne that the break with His half-brother, Mirza Yahya, became known to the community; and it was in Edirne, that, as the machinations of His enemies escalated to an unprecedented level, attempts were made on His life, one by a poisoning from which His health never fully recovered.

The flight of Bahá’u’lláh’s mind and soul as He moves between earth and heaven, human being and Manifestation, the Pen and the Divine Voice which, until the end of the surih, communicates the revelation the Pen is receiving, generates a complex and ever shifting web of perspectives that can make this surih challenging for the reader. Bahá’u’lláh speaks as the Pen and also sets down the words revealed by the Divine Voice to the Pen. In other words, we read the words of the revelation Bahá’u’lláh is receiving from the Divine Voice, words of assurance and confirmation regarding His divinely ordained mission, and we also read Bahá’u’lláh’s words of guidance to humanity as He takes up that mission. To add to the complexity of the surih, the metaphor of the pen is given further richness of meaning by the other metaphors employed to describe Bahá’u’lláh and His revelation, in particular, the metaphors of light and of unveiling.

As in the modern novel or in a poem for voices, points of view shift as different voices take up the theme of the surih. However, the structure that emerges from the interplay of voices is perhaps best likened, to draw upon another literary analogy, to the five act play. But the unfolding dramatic action of this surih does not follow the conventional pattern of the five act play, with its prologue, conflict, rising action and climax, falling action, and denouement. Rather, the Surih of the Pen enacts a divine drama in which the Pen moves from doubt to certainty, from grief to exaltation until, in the final act, it achieves union with its muse, the Maid of Heaven, the holy spirit that serves as the divine source of the Pen’s inspiration.

2. Invitation (Act One: Passage 1)

“In the name of God, the Most Wondrous, the Most Glorious!” — the invocation with which the surih opens sets the tone for what is to be communicated: the wondrous and glorious message of the Pen, the Pen of the Most Glorious itself, regarding this day, the day on which the “Most Exalted Word” has appeared in the form of a new Manifestation who brings a fresh revelation from God. The invocation is followed by a command, as the Divine Voice calls Bahá’u’lláh’s Pen to testify by its “own self,” its “own essence,” and in its “inmost being” that there is “none other God but Me, the Help in Peril, the Self-Subsisting” and that this is the “Beauty of God,” one that “hath ever been, and shall ever remain, unknown to all save Himself.”

The complex truths implicit in this invocation regarding the nature of the relationship of the Manifestation to the Godhead will generate, no doubt, a rich body of theology in future. But for our purposes here, all we as readers need to understand is that God is calling Bahá’u’lláh to assume His station as the Manifestation of God, the Revealer of His Word. As the revealer of God’s Word, the Pen is high above the heaven and earth but also the link between them. The imagery employed at the end of this passage suggests that Bahá’u’lláh, as the revealer of God’s Word, has come to bring light to the world and to disclose, by means of His Pen, secrets hitherto unknown:

Through but one of His effulgences the Day-Stars of majesty and grandeur have shone forth, the hearts of the denizens of the everlasting realm and the sanctified realities that lay hid beneath the mystic veil have been called into being, and the secrets of all that was and shall be have been laid bare.

3. Consolation (Act Two: Passages 2-5)

The opening verses of the second act of the drama may call to the reader’s mind the Quranic Surih of the Pen, for in that surih, as in this one, God consoles the Manifestation in the face of the assaults of the unbelievers. In Bahá’u’lláh’s Surih of the Pen, the Divine Voice not only consoles the Pen, but also assures it of protection and divine assistance in the form of the holy spirit:

O Pen! Let nothing dismay thee, for unto thee have We vouchsafed the inviolable protection of Our sovereign might and power, and into thee have We breathed a spirit, one breath of which would, if wafted upon the bodies of all existence, cause them to arise from their couches, unloose their tongues, speak forth, and bear witness in their inmost being that there is none other God but Me, the Powerful, the Glorious, the Exalted, the Mighty, the Peerless, the All-Subduing, the Self-Subsisting.

In the second passage of this act of the surih, the Divine Voice assures the Pen and commands it take up its divine mission, addressing it as follows: “O Pen of Command! Be assured in thyself and reveal then unto all beings a measure of that which God bestowed upon thee ere the creation of words and letters and the fashioning of all things. . . .” Here and later on in the same passage, the Pen is identified with the Word of God itself, the Logos, which precedes and also brings into being the entire creation: “Say: A single letter of Mine utterance hath, verily, brought forth the entire universe, the realities of all things, and worlds which none can fathom save God, the Almighty, the Most Manifest.”

The command of the Divine Voice to the Pen to “reveal” is followed by further assurances of its power, its beauty, and of the loftiness of its utterance, an utterance so mysterious and enigmatic it cannot be grasped fully by human minds:

Say: This is a Power unsurpassed from all eternity to all eternity, could ye but know it, O concourse of the Spirit, and this is a Beauty unrivalled from the beginning that hath no beginning, could ye but perceive it. Say: Whoso conceiveth the least design to confront this Pen, to presume partnership with it, to gain intimate access unto it, or to fully grasp that which emanateth from it, be assured that the Evil One doth whisper within his breast.

In the third passage of this second act of the drama, the Divine Voice consoles the Pen by condemning the “unbelievers,” disputing their false claims, and praising the Pen:

O Pen! Give ear unto that which the unbelievers have imputed to thee. Say: O assemblage of malice! Perish in your hatred, in your envy and your unbelief! By Him Who is the Eternal Truth! This is that Pen through a mere intimation of whose will the souls of the Concourse on high, and the realities of the denizens of the everlasting realm, and the essences of human hearts and minds, were all fashioned. This is that Pen through but a movement of which the sun of might and grandeur, and the moon of loftiness and sanctity, and the stars of grace and favour, were called into existence. This is that Pen through which were created the all-highest Paradise and all that abide therein, and the celestial garden and all that pertaineth thereto, could ye but comprehend.

The unbelievers are consumed with envy and the people as a whole lack the capacity to recognize the Pen. Therefore, the Divine Voice urges the Pen to patience as well as to restraint, even suggesting that it continue to veil itself, since the potency of its words is such that, on hearing them, even the holy ones might be overcome, and the earth and heaven compelled to give voice to the words uttered to Moses in the burning bush:

O Pen! Content thyself with that which thou hast so far intimated to the world of thy sovereignty and power, for the hearts of the envious are well-nigh bursting. Veil, then, thy Cause, and reveal no more than this, for thy words would rend asunder the heavens of ancient glory, and cleave in twain the earth of holiness itself, and cause the inmates of the realm of grandeur to swoon away. Be patient in thy heart, for the people of the world are incapable of beholding thy sovereignty or perceiving thy manifold signs or perceiving thy manifold signs, how much less of recognizing Him who hath created thee through but a single word of Hs Utterance! . . . Should all that are in the heavens and on earth and whatsoever lieth between them — whether trees, fruits, leaves, twigs, branches, rivers, oceans, or mountains — encounter a single word of thy pronouncement, they would assuredly speak forth that which the Burning Bush, springing from the soil of divine revelation, spoke unto Moses in that holy and blessed Vale.

4. Confirmation (Act Three: Passages 6-9)

Consoled now, assured of divine assistance, and cognizant of its power, in the third act of the drama, the Pen is commanded to listen to the “wondrous account” of that which God has given it; namely, the awareness God has bestowed upon it of its station as the Manifestation of God for this day. The Divine Voice then commands the Pen to sever itself from the world and to announce this joyous news to the people of the world: “Detach thyself, then, from all thou dost possess, and announce unto the people the joyful tidings of the appearance of the Most Exalted Word in this mighty Revelation, that haply they may recognize their Creator and renounce all else but Him.” The Pen is next commanded to call the “Concourse on high” (an appellation that might be considered roughly equivalent to angels in some other traditions) to celebrate “this Most Great Festival,” the Festival of Ridvan:

Call then upon the Concourse on high to rejoice, saying: O ye exponents of grandeur sheltered beneath the tabernacle of majesty! O ye denizens of the dominion of power abiding beneath the canopy of glory! O ye dwellers of the kingdom of the seen and the unseen situate in the furthermost precincts beyond the ocean of eternity! O ye manifestations of the divine names in the highest heaven! Let your hearts rejoice in this Most Great Festival wherein God Himself proffereth this most pure chalice unto such as stand before Him with beseeming lowliness and humility.

The commemoration of the Festival of Ridvan lies at the heart of this surih because it is on this occasion, that of His declaration, that Bahá’u’lláh becomes, at least in the eyes of the world, identified with His Pen. Although fully empowered before His declaration, His Pen might be said to be inactive, or in a condition of potentiality. Only with Bahá’u’lláh’s declaration is His Pen activated and launched on its mission. The Festival of Ridvan, therefore, represents what might be viewed, in the context of our drama metaphor, as the climatic scene in which the Manifestation, by taking up His Pen, becomes identified with His revelation, and, therefore, the embodiment of the Logos, or Word of God.

In the subsequent passages of this third act of the surih, the Divine Voice speaks to the Pen, affirming His uniqueness: “Say: I swear by the one true God that there hath never appeared in all creation another like unto Him.” Elaborating upon the light imagery introduced in the opening section of the surih, the powerfully rhythmic prose in this passage lifts the utterance to progressively more elevated rhetorical heights until the announcement of the advent of the Manifestation of God takes shape as a kind of trumpet call:

Say: This is the Light through which the inhabitants of the celestial world and their inner realities have been brought forth, and through which the embodiments of the heavenly realm and their inmost essences have been raised up. This is the Light through which God hath created worlds that have neither beginning nor end, worlds whereof none hath the slightest intimation save those whom their Lord hath willed. Thus do we disclose unto you the hidden mysteries, that haply ye may ponder the signs of God. Say: This, verily, is the Light before whose effulgence every head hath bowed down in lowliness, and before whose manifestation the hearts of the well-favoured of God, and the souls of His holy ones, and the inmost realities of His true worshippers, and beyond them His honoured servants, have prostrated themselves in adoration.

The Divine Voice itself takes up the announcement in the final two passages of the third act of the surih, informing the “inmates of the holy Sanctuary” that the Pen, Bahá’u’lláh, has shifted the spiritual center of the world to a new Qiblih, a new Point of Adoration. Bahá’u’lláh is, the Divine Voice affirms, the “Sanctuary of God amongst you and His sacred precinct in His midst, the holy site of the Spirit before your eyes and the Station of both inner and outer peace and security.” All, therefore, should undertake a pilgrimage to Him, or, if such a pilgrimage is not possible, should approach Him by means of the purification of their hearts and souls.

5. Proclamation (Act Four, Passages 10-13)

The command of the Divine Voice to the Pen in the third act of this divine drama, to announce the appearance of the “Most Exalted Word,” is followed in the fourth act by another command: to proclaim the greatness of the day on which the new Manifestation, Bahá’u’lláh, has appeared. He remains unrivalled in the entire creation, and, likewise, the day on which He appears has no likeness:

O Pen! Proclaim unto the concourse of eternity, saying: O ye that rove in the arenas of immortality! O ye that abide beneath the tabernacle of grandeur! O ye gem-like realities that lie hid from the eyes of creation! Descend from your lofty retreats to celebrate and rejoice, and to quaff from the cup of everlasting life that the hand of the All-Glorious is proffering on this Day. This, in truth, is a Day the like of which hath never been witnessed in all creation. . . .

The day is, the Divine Voice affirms, a day on which God has made Himself known through the person of the Manifestation and asserted His omnipotence over all things: “Say: This is the Day whereon God hath made His Own Self known and revealed it unto all who are in the heavens and on earth, a day whereon He hath established His sovereign ascendancy over the kingdoms of revelation and creation.” It is a day on which the “unseen Beauty” and “the Hidden Secret” have been revealed in the person of the Ancient Beauty, who has “appeared with such an adorning as to cause the veils to be rent asunder, and the mysteries to be revealed. . . .”

Indeed, the day on which the Pen has appeared is of such significance that all of the prophets of the past have “called out” to celebrate it:

This is a day whereon the idols of misbelief and worldly desire have been shattered and the Ancient Beauty hath ascended His mighty throne. The Spirit of glory hath called out from the precincts of eternity, and the Most Holy Spirit from the Divine Lote-Tree, and the Spirit of command from the Tree beyond which there is no passing, and the Spirit of might from the exalted dominion, and the faithful Spirit from the right hand of the Burning Bush, saying: “Hallowed be the Lord of mercy, Who hath appeared in the world of existence invested with that which mortal eyes had never beheld!”

The Divine Voice next tells the Pen to call the monks to leave their churches and seize their portion of grace in this day, a day on which “the bells are pealing out in My remembrance, the Trumpet soundeth My praise, and the Bugle proclaimeth My Name, the Help in Peril, the Self-Subsisting.” The Pen is also told to call to the “inhabitants of the realms of the seen and unseen” and tell them to “sing the most joyous melodies on this Festival of God,” this Ridvan, when all humanity has attained the paradise of nearness to God by virtue of the Pen’s declaration of His mission. It is this very Pen, the passage concludes, that in this day “hath absolved all who are in the heavens and on earth.” As if to underline the connection between God and His Manifestation, the revealer of His Word, the Divine Voice concludes with an affirmation that this act of forgiveness ordained by God has been communicated by the Pen: “Thus hath His eternal command shone forth from the dayspring of His Pen, that ye may rejoice in your souls and be of those whose hearts are gladdened.”

6. Union (Act Five: Passages 14-20)

In the final section of the surih, the divine drama reaches its climax as the Pen engages in a dialogue with the Maid of Heaven or holy spirit, a dialogue that serves as a kind of re-enactment of the declaration made by the Pen on the occasion of Ridvan. Here, the Pen merges, at last, with its source of inspiration, the Maid of Heaven, who unveils and reveals herself as the “black-eyed Damsel.” Her unveiling represents the fulfillment of Bahá’u’lláh’s declaration in the Garden of Ridvan and its tangible fruit; namely, a revelation unmediated by the Divine Voice. Once Bahá’u’lláh, becomes one with His muse, He takes up His Pen and sets down the words of His revelation, without being commanded to do so by the Divine Voice.

In this final act of the drama, the Divine Voice speaks one last time, calling the Pen to announce to the Maid of Heaven that it is time for her to unveil herself and come forth into the light that shines from the face of Bahá:

O Pen! Announce unto the Maid of Paradise: “By God! This day is thy day. Come forth as thou willest, and array thyself as thou pleasest with the broidered robe of names and the silken vesture of immortality. Emerge then from thine eternal habitation even as the sun that dawneth from the countenance of Bahá. Descend from thy lofty heights and, standing betwixt earth and heaven, lift the veil of concealment from thy luminous face and shine forth above the horizon of creation as the black-eyed Damsel, that haply the most great veil may be torn away from the eyes of these people and they may behold the Scene of transcendent glory, the Beauty of God, the Most Holy, the Most Powerful, the Best-Beloved.”

In the subsequent passage, the Maid of Paradise addresses Bahá’u’lláh directly, lamenting that the ignorance of the unbelievers has kept them from recognizing Him and acknowledging that it is He who has ‘veiled’ her in order to protect her from the scrutiny of His enemies:

“O Ancient Beauty! The unbelievers, verily, are lost in the stupor of idle fancy and are powerless to turn their eyes towards the most hallowed Court. Through the sovereign potency of Thine inviolable protection, Thou hast shielded me beneath the veils of light and guarded my beauty from the gaze of Thine enemies. . . .”

The Pen then responds to the Maid, addressing her as the “Maid of Bahá” and calling her to “shine forth” with a divine revelation so that she may “manifest the beauteous image of God”:

“O Maid of Bahá! Step forth from the court of eternity, but let not thy most pure gaze linger upon the faces of mortal men. I swear by the one true God! None save them that are possessed of true insight can ever hope to behold thee in this most sublime vision. Leave the kingdom of names on thy right and the dominion of attributes on thy left, and shine forth by My leave above the horizon of Mine inviolable protection, divested of all that hath been created in the realm of Revelation and shorn of all that hath appeared in the kingdom of creation, that thou mayest manifest the beauteous image of God in all regions. . . .”

The name by which the Pen addresses the Maid — “Maid of Bahá” — suggests that it, the Pen, has now been activated by the holy spirit; the Manifestation has now merged with His muse and claimed her as His own source of inspiration. In the Pen’s invitation to the Maid to come forth in all her luminous beauty, the connection between the unveiling of the Maid of Heaven and both the Festival of Ridvan and the metaphorical Ridvan of attaining the Paradise of nearness to the God, is made clear. Employing imagery that is sensuous and, at the same time, suggestive of an otherworldly presence, the Ancient Beauty celebrates the beauty of the Maid, the now unveiled spirit of divine inspiration that informs and guides His Pen, in what might be described as a kind of divine love song:

“. . . . Intone, then, the sweetest of melodies betwixt earth and heaven, that all existence may be detached from aught save the face of thy Lord, the Most Holy, the Most Gracious, the Well-Beloved Beam forth above the horizon of the Riḍván with the beauty of the All-Merciful, and let thy fragrant locks flow upon thy bosom, that the perfume of the garment of thy most gracious Lord may be diffused throughout the world. Hide not thy luminous form from the eyes of the concourse of Revelation, and withhold not thine ethereal veil of holiness from the gaze of the people. Present thyself, then, before the Throne with thy locks flowing, thine arms bejewelled, thy countenance blushing, thy cheeks aglow, and thine eyes adorned, and take hold of the snow-white chalice in My most exalted Name. Proffer then to the denizens of the realm of eternity the crimson wine of Mine all-glorious Beauty, that haply the concourse of Revelation may sanctify their souls in this most august Festival by virtue of this pure draught, and that they may emerge from behind the veil of concealment through the power of Mine almighty and all-powerful, Mine all-subduing and self-subsisting sovereignty.”

Now unveiled, the maid assumes her new identity as the “Maid of Heaven” by calling out her own name and, thus, enacting her own descent as the holy spirit:

“By God! I am the Maid of Heaven, abiding in the midmost heart of Paradise, hidden behind the veil of the All-Merciful and concealed from the eyes of men. From time immemorial I remained shrouded in the veil of sanctity beneath the Tabernacle of Grandeur. I heard a most sweet call from the right hand of the throne of my Lord, the Most Exalted, and I saw Paradise itself set in motion and all its inhabitants stirred up in their longing to attain the presence of God, the All-Glorious. Whereupon another call was raised: ‘By God! The Beloved of the worlds is come! Blessed be the one who attaineth His presence, and beholdeth His face, and giveth ear to His most holy, His most glorious and beloved utterance. The Voice of God hath enraptured the souls of the Concourse on high and the hearts of the dwellers of the everlasting realm, and the all-consuming ecstasies of love have caused them to tremble with yearning and to fix their gaze upon the court of sanctity, the station of unapproachable glory.’ Were I to speak in every tongue, I would nonetheless be powerless to describe that which I beheld in that state. . . .”

The maid’s recognition of the station of the Pen, Bahá’u’lláh, the “Beloved of the worlds” is reminiscent in tone but also in spirit of Bahá’u’lláh’s account of His own awakening in the Siyyih-Chal, the dark pit of Tehran, where He first became aware of His calling. In what can only be described as an ecstatic outpouring, the Maid recalls the wonder of that moment in which she recognized her Beloved and, the suggestion is, grasped the nature of her relationship to Him as the divine source of inspiration for His pen. The maid’s response here to the love song of the Pen might be ranked with the most ecstatic utterances we might come across in the Writings of Bahá’u’lláh, employing as it does a language that points to the limits of all language in attempting convey the ineffable nature of mystical experience.

The maid concludes her response to the Pen with a lamentation: though the advent of the Beloved has encompassed all creation with a kind of “rapture,” the unbelievers, specifically, the “people of the Bayan” remain “veiled and heedless.” To this the Pen responds with consolation and reassurance, urging the Maid to turn her thoughts away from the unbelievers and towards her service as the “voice” of divine revelation:

“O Maid of holiness! Forsake the mention of such people, for their hearts are as immovable as stones and impervious to all but the promptings of idle fancy. For they remain immature in the Cause of God and suckle the milk of ignorance at the breast of waywardness. Leave them to dwell upon the dust, and warble thou My melodies in the realm of eternity. Apprise, then, the inhabitants of Paradise of that which hath been manifested in the kingdom of creation. Thus may they become attracted by Thy sweet accents, hasten towards this hallowed and promised Beauty, and become fully apprised of this Day — a Day whereon all things have been adorned with the ornament of names, a Day whereon every poor one hath found the source of true wealth and every deprived and sinful soul hath attained forgiveness.”

With these words, the dialogue between Bahá’u’lláh, the Pen, and the Maid of Heaven ends, and the dramatic action reaches its conclusion. Bahá’u’lláh, as Pen, now directly addresses the people of the world, urging them to embrace the message of the Pen: “O people! Seek ye in these days the grace of God and His all-embracing mercy, and beware lest ye follow in the footsteps of every veiled and heedless soul.” This surih, the Pen asserts, is intended to serve as a “summons” to all people to ponder “this blessed and fated account” — namely, the story enacted in the surih, of the unveiling of the Maid of Heaven, the holy spirit, and her union with the Pen.

7. Conclusion

After perusing this surih, readers may feel they have gained a deepened understanding of the challenges Bahá’u’lláh faced during the early years of His mission, as He gradually lifted the veil covering His station and revealed Himself in the fullness of His glory. The dramatic re-enactment in the Surih of the Pen of the glorious inception of Bahá’u’lláh’s revelation and His assumption of His prophetic mission, serves to cast a fresh light not only on the nature of His claims, but also on the opposition presented by those who had difficulty grasping, let alone accepting, the nature of those claims. Bahá’u’lláh’s powerful assertion in this surih of His own burgeoning authority as the Pen of Revelation, might well inspire awe, and, at the same time, offer readers much to consider in reflecting upon the magnitude and scope of His mission. And those who give themselves fully to the reading of this surih, may find their souls lifted to the heights of ecstasy as they contemplate the majesty and grandeur of Bahá’u’lláh’s Pen.

Windows / Mac