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.