This paper is a translation and commentary upon a work of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá in which he give a mystical commentary upon the first few words of the thirtieth Súrah of the Qur’án, the Súrah of Rúm. These words refer to the overthrow of the Byzantines. ‘Abdu’l-Bahá gives the standard Muslim commentary upon these verses. Despite the fact that these verses have an obvious outward meaning, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá goes on to give nine esoteric or mystical interpretations of the word “al-Rúm” and of the phrase “The Byzantines have been overthrown.” In the last of these interpretations, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá delineates the different types of soul: mineral, vegetable, animal, human and the Soul of Láhút, the realm of the Primal Manifestation. With regard to the human soul, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá also lists the nine stages in its ascent. These consist of the commanding soul, the blaming soul, the inspired soul, the assured soul, the accepting soul, the accepted soul, the perfect soul, the soul of the Kingdom of God (Malakút) and the soul of the Realm of Divine Command (Jabarút). This last is the ultimate goal in the world of creation. ‘Abdu’l-Bahá describe these stages in the ascent of the human soul and how progress may be made from one to the other. This work of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá thus performs two functions. It establishes the principle that the Word of God has many meanings some of which are external and obvious while others are hidden and mystical. It is also a manual or guide to Bahá’í mysticism in that lays out the pathway or stages for the ascent of the soul from its lowest state of abasement and preoccupation with the things of the world to its highest state where the human qualities are effaced and only the divine attributes are manifest in the individual, the state where it becomes aware of the secrets of hidden and invisible realities.
The work that is the subject of this paper is a lengthy tablet of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá in which he gives an extensive commentary on the opening words of the thirtieth Súrah of the Qur’án, the Súrah of Rúm. Indeed most of the tablet is taken up with various interpretations of a single word in this Súrah, the word that also forms the title of the Súrah: ar-Rúm. While the word is obviously derived from the word Rome, in the context of the Arabia of the time of the Prophet Muhammad, “Rome” meant the new Rome established by the Emperor Constantine on the Bosphorus, the city that he made his capital and which at this time was prospering even as the old Rome on the Tiber was struggling for survival under wave after wave of the barbarian tribes that had brought the Dark Ages to Europe. Thus the word “ar-Rúm” is best translated as “Byzantium” or “the Byzantines.”
The opening two verses and one phrase upon which ‘Abdu’l-Bahá comments in this tablet begin immediately after the disconnected letters “Alif Lam Mim”:
2. The Byzantines have been overthrown Ghulibat ar-Rúm
3. In a land close by; but they (even) after (this) defeat of theirs will be victorious Fí adná al-‘ard. Wa-hum min ba‘di ghalabihim sa-yaghlibú
4. Within a few years… Fíbid‘ sinín
These verses refer to certain historical events that occurred during the ministry of Muhammad. In about the year 614, the Persian King Khusraw (Chosroes) Parviz attacked the Byzantines in Syria and took Damascus. By 616, he had occupied Egypt and most of Asia Minor. He even besieged Constantinople for a time. News of these events reached Mecca where Muhammad was under great pressure from his adversaries, the idolators of Mecca. What then occurred is recounted in Islamic Traditions thus:
It is related that, after the revelation of this verse, Abu Bakr even laid a bet with the unbelievers that the Persians would in turn be defeated, but he said that it would be in five years. When this did not occur, he questioned the Prophet about this and Muhammad replied that the word “bid‘” means between three and ten. A few years later in 622 the victory of the Byzantines occurred.
Similarly, a Shi‘i account gives the same story:
The Persians overthrew the Byzantines and were victorious over them in the time of the Messenger of God (PBUH). The unbelievers of Mecca were happy at this in that the Persians were not people of the Book; and the Muslims were unhappy about this. Jerusalem was for the Byzantines like Mecca is for Muslims and the Persians had driven them back from it.
The tablet can be dated to the period before the passing of Bahá’u’lláh, since Bahá’u’lláh mentions it in a tablet dating from the ‘Akká period, and addressed to a certain ‘Abd al-Ghaní. Bahá’u’lláh states that a question about these verses had been asked and that although a commentary on these verses had already been revealed by the Báb, Bahá’u’lláh commanded ‘Abdu’l-Bahá to answer the questioner.
It is not however certain from reading the tablet that ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s correspondent was a Bahá’í. He may well have been from among Bahá’u’lláh and ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s wide circle of Muslim acquaintances. There are no overt references to the Bahá’í Faith or the Bahá’í teachings in the tablet. Although there are a few references to the greatness of “this day,” these are vague enough that they could well have been written to a Muslim correspondent without occasioning comment. If this speculation is correct, then it is also possible to say that ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s correspondent was probably a Sunni, rather than a Shi‘i, and therefore also probably non-Iranian. This is clear from the lack of the usual Shi‘i references and honorifics that would otherwise have been within the text if it had been written to a Shi‘i. Thus, in summary, it is possible that this tablet belongs along with A Traveller’s Narrative and The Secret of Divine Civilization among those tablets written by ‘Abdu’l-Bahá during Bahá’u’lláh’s lifetime and intended primarily for a non-Bahá’í audience, and in this case, a Sunni audience.
In this tablet, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá gives some ten meanings in all for the word “al-Rúm” and for the phrase “Ghulibat ar-Rúm” (the Byzantines have been overthrown), while in a few of these ten meanings, he extends the commentary to the remaining words: “in a land close by; but they (even) after (this) defeat of theirs will be victorious within a few years.”
As most people are aware, the Qur’án itself lays down the parameters for the writing of commentaries upon it. It states that the text of the Qur’án is divided into two parts, those verses that are clear in meaning and those about which there is doubt.
He it is that hath sent down unto thee the Book. In it are verses with firm meaning (muhkamát) — they are the foundation of the Book (literally the Mother of the Book, umm l-kitáb) — and other verses that are of uncertain meaning (mutashábihát). Those in whose hearts there is a crookedness follow that part which is uncertain seeking to cause dissension and trying to explain it. But none knows its explanation except God and those who are firmly grounded in knowledge. (Qur’án 3:7)
It is of some considerable interest that ‘Abdu’l-Bahá has chosen to write a highly mystical commentary on a text which refers to a clear historical event. In other words, it is not a verse that would ordinarily be regarded as one of the verses that are of uncertain meaning (mutashábihát), but rather as one of the verses with firm meaning (muhkamát). Although some doubt has been expressed about the voice of the verb in 30:2 (see below), this is expressed as a minority view and there is, in any case no doubt that the verse refers to a specific historical event.
‘Abdu’l-Bahá then gives ten interpretations of these verses, the first being the outward historical circumstances as described above. The next nine are esoteric or mystical interpretations. Esoteric interpretations of this text are not unknown. The following, for example, is from the Tafsír of ‘Abd al-Razzáq al-Káshání (which is often attributed to Ibn al-‘Arabí):
The Primal Essence with the attributes of knowledge and primacy, just as He hath said. It requires that the “Rúm” of spiritual power be overthrown in the nearest of places to the earth of the soul (nafs), which is the breast (sadr), for the outpourings (fayd) of the Primal Source necessitates the appearance of the creation, and through this conceals the Absolute Reality. And all that is closest to the Absolute is overthrown by that which is closest to the creation. And this is the effect of the name of the Originator in the manifestation of the origins [of creation] and the effulgences of the All-High upon it, and also of His name the Manifest (záhir) and of His name the Creator, and, in summary, of whatever names are in His Primal Presence. And “they will afterwards” — after their being overthrown, “they will overthrow” the Persians of the human, veiled, foreign powers by returning to God and manifesting victory.
Although there are such examples of mystical commentary on this passage, the present author is not aware of any mystical commentary of the length and depth of this work of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá.
‘Abdu’l-Bahá has nine mystical or esoteric interpretation of these verses. The following is a summary of these:
“Rúm” signifies the existent realities and those veils which issue forth as a result of the specifications of existence. “Overthrown” refers to the overcoming and vanishing of these with the coming of the Manifestation of God.“Rúm” signifies the forces of self and passion and the peoples of ignorance and blindness which, however, assist the Manifestation of God when he appears and, in doing this are “overthrown” and overwhelmed, which then becomes the source of their spiritual growth.“Rúm” signifies those souls who turn their faces seeking enlightenment when the Manifestation of God appears. They purify the mirrors of their hearts and draw near to the rays of that noble light. They look to their Lord with radiant snow-white rejoicing countenance (for the Byzantines were considered by the Arabs to have white complexions and reddish hair). “Overthrown” refers to the fact that God send them trials and difficulties at the hands of the enemies of God. They in turn will overcome these tests and difficulties.“Rúm” signifies the Divine ordinances, laws and decrees. In the days of the interval between Messengers of God, the people tend to cast the laws of God aside and establish a rule of ignorance. Thus are the holy and divine laws “overthrown” among the people. But after a time, a new Manifestation of God appears and the law of God is re-established.“Rúm” signifies the realities of things and their essences (máhiyyát) and the capacity of created things and their potentialities. And the meaning of “overthrown” is that the Divine outpourings and effulgences pervaded these realities, filled them, and surrounded them from all directions, both inwardly and outwardly, on the Day when the Manifestations of God appears. For on that day, God does not look at the capacity of souls and their preparedness. Rather, He pours forth upon them His Grace and Beneficence even if they have no capacity.“Rúm” signifies speculative opinion and logical proofs, which in the days prior to the appearance of the Manifestation of God are the only proofs available to people for the existence of God. When, however, the Manifestation of God appears, the veils of such speculative thought and reasoning are rent asunder and the banners of proofs and intimations are unfurled. “Al-Rúm was defeated”: that is to say the drops of the waters of speculative opinion and reasoning vanished in the face of the billowing oceans of the revelations and testimonies of the Manifestation of God himself.“Rúm” signifies the bodily stages and realities of this earthly realm, together with their accidents and specifications. And: “Al-Rúm was overthrown” means that the bodily stages pass away with the manifestation of Word of God. Thus are the bodily things overthrown and dominion belongs to the things of the spirit.“Rúm” signifies the idle fancies and vain imaginings in the hearts of ordinary people for these have supreme sovereignty among the people during the days of the absence of the Manifestation of God. When the Manifestation comes, however, he cause the darkness of idle fancies and vain imaginings to disappear.“Rúm” signifies the stages of the soul and the states thereof, its degrees, its elevation and diminution, its ascent and its fall.
These stages are described by ‘Abdu’l-Bahá as consisting of the following:
I. Mineral soul — which is static in nature and does not develop.
II. Vegetative soul — the features of which are that it grows and develops.
III. Animal soul — which senses its environment.
IV. Human soul — the rational soul within which arise the powers of the human being, the outer and inner senses, knowledge, sciences, arts, and wisdom. It is also the place where dark passions and earthly failings appear. The human soul has the following stages:
a. the commanding soul — the soul that commands to evil — is preoccupied with the trivialities of this world, and is infatuated with evil and ephemeral desires.
b. the blaming soul — which becomes aware of the depths of its degradation and of its remoteness from its true goal. It awakes to a perception of its state, is filled with regret and blames itself for the depths of perversity and error to which it has sunk.
c. the inspired soul — as it rises from its lowly condition, the soul comes to understand those things that kept it abased and those thing which will lead to its elevation. It becomes averse to those things that perish and to incline towards those things that endure. It is termed the inspired soul for it is inspired as to that which on the one hand leads to depravation and on the other to righteousness.
d. the assured soul — this is the stage at which the soul is in remembrance of its Lord and sees the signs of God in the creation. As a result it is assured in its faith, its turmoil and unrest is calmed, it has quenched its thirst, soothed its torment; it has changed its darkness to light and unloaded its burdens.
e. the accepting soul — reaches a station of submission and contentment, leaving behind its searching and neediness. It entrusts its affairs to God and is content with whatever God may decree for it. This is a happiness that is not followed by sadness. There remains no will, no rest, no motion, no destiny nor any fate except in God.
f. the accepted soul — in this state all-encompassing blessings and mercy reach it. Insofar as it has risen and left behind its passions and accepted the decree of its Lord, it becomes accepted in the sight of God, and in its state of nothingness, it is approved by its Creator.
g. the perfect soul — here it is characterized by divine perfections and compromised of godly attributes. It thus becomes the focal point of inspiration and the dawning-place for the Divine effulgences.
h. the soul of the Kingdom of God (Malakút) — here the soul confirms in its reality the profession of Divine Unity and establishes in its essence the sign of detachment. It attains to everlasting life and external living. It takes pleasure from delights the like of which no eye has seen nor any ear heard.
j. the soul of the Realm of Divine Command (Jabarút) — this is a station far above the understanding of the minds of men, for this station is created out of the elements of power, authority, sovereignty, omnipotence, and freedom and nothing that has limitations or pluralities has any resemblance to it. Here the soul becomes aware of the secrets of hidden and invisible realities. This is the ultimate goal in the world of creation.
V. Divine Soul — the soul of the realm of Primal Manifestation (Láhut) — it is the Universal Reality which brings together all of the revealed Divine realities, the Primal Point from which appear all things and to which they revert. From it there appears plurality through manifestation and illumination, and it becomes divided, dispersed and manifold, and radiates. This station and this soul are completely and forever beyond the reach of human beings.
In relation to his commentary on the overthrow of “Rúm,” ‘Abdu’l-Bahá says that it means, in this context, that as the human soul ascends stage by stage, it overthrows the conditions of the lower stage in order to attain the higher stage.
It can thus be seen that not only has ‘Abdu’l-Bahá given nine spiritual or esoteric interpretations of this sentence of the Qur’án but he has done so in relation to only one event in spiritual reality — the coming of the Manifestation of God. Presumably ‘Abdu’l-Bahá could have given further interpretations of this verse relating to other aspects of spiritual reality.
With regard to the stages of the human soul, the first three or four (the commanding soul, the blaming soul, the inspired soul and the assured soul) are fairly commonly repeated among Sufi authors and those in the tradition of mystical philosophy in Islam. The remaining ones are rarely found although not unknown.
At the end of this tablet, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá refers to an alternative reading of this Quranic passage that would put the first verb into the active voice and the second verb into the passive. The passage would then read:
The Byzanites have been victorious (have overthrown [the Persians]), but they, after this victory (overthrow) of theirs, will be defeated within a few years.
The commentaries give this as an alternative reading and state that the circumstances in which this reading would have occurred refer to the time of the Battle of Badr when referring to the victory that had by then occurred of the Romans over Persians, the Qur’án predicts that the Romans too will be defeated by the Muslim armies within a few years.
The text of the tablet that has been used for this translation is to be found in Makátíb ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, vol.1, pp. 62-102
He is the All-Glorious!
Praise be to Thee, O Lord! O my God! Out of Thy Bounty and Mercy, Thou hast caused the waters of existence to descend from the heaven of Thy Oneness and Thou hast caused the showers of Thine Eternal Bounties to rain down from the clouds of the heaven of Thy Mighty Oneness until, through this most mighty Beneficence, the rivers of Thy most wondrous Grace flowed forth upon the soil of all possible existence realities in Thine act of Creation. All lands and regions were watered by these streaming, heavenly rivers. Every hill and city was inundated by these torrential celestial floods. And then there shone forth upon them the sun of Thy Mercy from the horizon of Thy holy Might. And the grains, O my God, of Thine Exalted Word and Thy Most Mighty Verses were sown in the earth of human capacity by Thy great Grace and Favour.
These existence realities, however, became differential and diverged through the effulgences of the Sun of Thy most great Name. Some of them, O my God, just as Thou hast reckoned according to Thy secret knowledge, are pure and refined hearts upon which that Sun imprinted its signs and from which there appeared traces of its effulgence. It hath stirred up and fertilised their soul and there hath grown forth from them the myrtles of love and knowledge of Thee. They have been adorned by the sacred blossoms of yearning for and attraction towards Thee as like a blessed and fertile land. Some, however, O my God, were soiled hearts obscured by the rust of their vain imaginings, veiled from their Lord by the veils of darkness. No trace appears among them of the effulgences of that sun nor of the signs of the One Who hath created and ordained it. Upon their soil, the grain of the mention of their Lord is as upon desolate and barren land. Thou art not, however, O my God, neglectful in Thine effulgences upon the creation and the appearance of Thy signs among existent realities, as Thou has said, and Thy word is the truth: “No fault canst thou see in the creation of the All-Merciful (67:3)” and “Your creation and your resurrection is but as a single soul (31:28)”
At this time, I ask of Thee by Thy Name, which were it to be cast upon the mountains, they would crumble into dust and flow away, were it to be scattered upon the seas, they would overflow, were it to be thrown upon shrivelled branches, they would turn green and flower, and upon the blind, they would see, and upon the dumb, they would speak, and upon the deaf, they would hear, and upon the dead, they would arise, that Thou mayest lift the veils which intervene between Thee and Thy creatures and which prevent them from entering into the wellspring of Thy Mercy, from setting out on the pathway of Thy mighty Oneness, from hearkening to the melodies of the birds of Thy throne, and from drinking from the chalice of Thy love and knowledge of Thee. Verily, they are the lowly at Thy gate and the needy before the manifestation of Thy wealth. For themselves they seek to acquire neither benefit nor harm, neither life nor resurrection. Raise then, O my God, these pure souls to Thee and cause them to ascend with the wings of Divine Unity into the clouds of the highest heaven (‘amá’) of the glory (bahá) of Thy Singleness. Shine forth upon them at every instant with what Thou wishest to bestow upon these compounded realities and these sacred hearts, for there is neither beginning nor end to signs of Thee, nor a first or last to Tokens of Thee. Wert Thou to shed Thy splendour upon the sincere ones among Thy creatures at every instant in all of Thy manifold ways, no reduction would there be in Thine Ancient Riches, nor any diminution in Thy Hidden Treasures.
And so, O my God, be merciful to Thy needy servants. Cause them to be seated beneath the tree of Thy Mercy and feed them from the table that Thou hast sent down from the heaven of Thy glorious Oneness. For verily Thou are the True Giver and Thou art the Forgiving, the Merciful.
Thou knowest, O my God, that this servant is the neediest of all the servants in Thy realm and is the lowliest of Thy creatures in Thy lands. How then, with such absolute poverty, is it possible for me to explain the incorporated and hidden meanings within the realities of Thy words and the secrets which Thou hast hidden from the eyes of the mystic knowers behind the tabernacle of Thy word. Since,however, Thou hast commanded me, I take up my pen trusting in Thee and relying upon Thy Bounty and Mercy. For Thou hast willed, O my God, that there flow forth from this ephemeral pen the seas of Thy Knowledge and the oceans of Thy secrets. Thou dost not wish that the tongue of the Supreme Pen be silent amidst the concourse of Thy creatures nor that the outflowing bounties of the Ancient Beauty be cut off from the peoples. The command is Thine. Thou doest as Thou desirest and Thou ordaineth what Thou pleaseth and the limit Thou hast set is: No God is there but Thee, the Powerful, the Mighty, the All-Bountiful.
O distinguished and excellent questioner! Know thou that from within every one of the Words of God, there surge forth oceans of hidden meanings, without number, and that from within every letter of the verses of thy Lord, there shine forth the suns of secrets, heavenly signs and truths, that none can number except God, thy Lord and the Lord of thy fathers before you. That being the case how is it possible for ink to flow forth with these hidden meanings, even were there to be oceans of it, and how would sheets of paper suffice, even were they to be as extensive as the horizon? There is no end to this most great gift and no beginning to this most great mercy for it to be exhausted. Just as [God] says, and His word is the truth: “Were the ocean to be ink for the words of my Lord, verily that ink would be exhausted ere the words of my Lord were exhausted, even were a similar amount of ink added to it” (Qur’án 18:109). However, even if all of it cannot be mentioned, all of it need not be left out either. Therefore I can mention some of the hidden and secret meanings streaming from the torrents of the words of your Lord, the Exalted, the Mighty.
Know thou that these holy verses and heavenly sounds having meanings that are outer (záhir) and inner (bátin) and also the inner of the inner (bátin al-bátin) and so forth endlessly. For the words of God are mirrors encompassing (muhítah) the forms (suwar) of all things. Thus is it that [God] says: “There is nothing dry nor wet but that it is [inscribed]in a perspicuous Book.” (Qur’án 6:59)
1] And as for the outer meaning, God hath announced [in this surah] the destruction of the might of the Persians and the victory and triumph of Byzantium [Rome], after the Byzantines had been defeated and brought to naught at the hands of the Persians — their unity had been sundered and their alliances dispersed. The explanation of this is that in the days when the sun of Divine Oneness was shining from the Muhammadan point and the banners of guidance were raised over the notables of Yathrib (Medina) and Batha (Mecca), the dove was warbling upon the twigs of the Sadrat al-Muntaha and the peacock singing in the heavenly sanctuary, the idolaters said that Khusraw (Chroeses) the king of the Persians, who were not people of the book, had defeated and was victorious over the Emperor of Byzantium, who was the people of the book. Similarly, they said, we will destroy the might (kalima) of Muhammad the Messenger of God on account of his being of the people of the book as is the emperor of Byzantium and we are not people of the as is the king of the Persians. And so God caused these heavenly (láhútiyya) verses to descend and announced that Byzantium would defeat its enemy the Persians within a few (bid’) years. And a few (bid’) means between three and nine. And after seven of those years, God caused to appear that which had been announced by His most mighty Companion (Muhammad). The Byzantines were victorious over the Persians and their ascendancy was established. Thus was it confirmed to the sincere ones that the knowledge of God precedes all things and embraces all that is in existence, whether of the seen or unseen.
This is that which the hearts of those who write the commentaries hath sung in the gardens of the mighty Qur’án. But other than this they have not penetrated to the secrets deposited therein nor to the stored and hidden mysteries flowing within the streams of the words of Thy Lord the All-Knowing, the All-Wise. And with this they cannot satisfy those who are sore athirst for the living waters (Kawthar) of the spirit from the hands of Grace and Beneficence. And this is nothing for those whom God has endowed with a penetrating vision and has taught them the meaning of His word and has informed them of the true interpretation of His verses. It is therefore necessary that I mention some of the things that God has intended by these hidden verses, theses heavenly songs.
2] I say that Rome signifies that station which refers to and relates to the existent realities, to pure being (sarf an-ániyyah) and to the concealing veils and the woes which issue forth from the specifications of existence. And these are overcome and vanish with the rise of the rays shining forth from the Sun of Truth. And so when the cycle of the spirit has come to an end and the lamps of guidance have been extinguished, and the breezes of righteousness have been stilled, and the winds of faithfulness have become fatigued, and the heaven of wealth and the garden of victories has been transformed into a barren waste-land and the owl hoots balefully from the Tree of Zaqqum (Qur’án 37:62, 44:43, 56:52), then does the breeze of the spring-time of the All-Merciful waft from the Valley of Ayman the blessed spot, and the Sun of Divine Oneness rise from the dawning-place of the Will of Thy Lord the All-Merciful, the Compassionate, and the clouds of Divine Bounty arise and pour out upon the hearts, souls and the inner realities, causing the soils of capacity and receptivity to become verdant and the earth of knowledge to sprout forth. Then does the blessed tree becomes verdant from which can be heard the call: “O Moses! Thou art in the holy vale of Tuwa” (Qur’án 20:11–12) and the fire of reality appears in that “olive tree which is neither of the east nor of the west. And its oil almost catches fire even though no fire has touched it. It is light upon light. God guides to His light whomsoever He wills” (Qur’án 24:35). Then doth the nightingale of inner meaning (ma’ání) sing upon the branches with the most lofty melodies.
And it says “The Romans have been defeated in the nearest of lands.” What land is nearer than the realities of things and their specifications? Then the tongue of the Ancient of Days announces, and it is indeed a mighty word, that the King of the Living the Eternal has decreed that every affair should have a prescribed and fixed term. And so at the end of this cycle, there will come days when this shining sun will set and be followed by billowing clouds, and this spiritual spring-time will be ended by darksome autumn, and this lofty garden will be transformed and its trees uprooted, and its leaves scattered, and its breezes will be stilled, and its rivers interrupted and their limpidity (clarity) destroyed. “This is the way of God and thou wilt not find any change or alteration in His way” (cf. Qur’án 48:23 and 17:77)