In the name of God, Most Gracious, Most Merciful
1. By the Fig and the Olive,
2. And the Mount of Sinai,
3. And this City of security,–
4. We have indeed created man in the best of moulds,
5. Then do We abase him (to be) the lowest of the low,–
6. Except such as believe and do righteous deeds: For they shall have a reward unfailing.
7. Then what can, after this, contradict thee, as to the judgment (to come)?
8. Is not God the wisest of judges?
Although the Bahá’í Faith has its roots in Persia, it developed in the Ottoman Empire through Bahá’u’lláh’s banishment to Baghdad (1853-1863), to Istanbul and Edirne in Rumelia (European Turkey, 1863-1868), and lastly to Ottoman Palestine (1868-1892). Many significant events, like Bahá’u’lláh’s proclamation to various kings and rulers, occurred in the borders of what is today modern Turkey. From 1853, Bahá’u’lláh and ‘Abdu’l-Bahá came into contact with many Ottoman officials during their exile, many of whom were friendly. For example, Namik Pasha, governor of Baghdad, and Hursid Pasha, governor of Edirne, both hesitated to enact banishment decrees of Sultan Abdulaziz. “Young Ottoman” reformers such as the famous poet and writer Namik Kemal (d. 1888) and Midhat Pasha (d. 1884), “father” of the Constitution of 1876 (the third Tanzimat or reform edict), and the writer Süleyman Nazif (d. 1927), supporter of the “Young Turk” movement, either communicated with or personally met ‘Abdu’l-Bahá. ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, well-versed in various Turkish dialects, acted as his father’s mediator in those times, and had good relations with many Ottomans.
The only published collection of Turkish tablets and prayers by ‘Abdu’l-Bahá is entitled Majmú‘ih-yi Alváḥ wa Munájáthá-yi Turkí. It contains several tablets and prayers of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá which were written in the Arabic-Persian script, and some of which are partially composed in Persian and/or Arabic. These include tablets to individual Bahá’ís and groups in Caucasia, Erivan, Zinján, Sísán and other places. These texts are mostly short announcements of the glad tidings of Bahá’u’lláh’s coming. Several are in the Azeri dialect. The Bahá’í World Centre apparently has a great number of tablets of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá written in different Turkish dialects, and there might be still more in private hands or libraries.
The Turkish tablets of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá are not known to many Bahá’ís, and except for some Ottoman prayers printed in Latin letters, the Bahá’í community of Turkey has little access to them because of their Ottoman script. Consequently, I am aware of no scholarship that has yet been done in the field of Turkish Bahá’í studies. Turkish Bahá’ís born before the script and language reform made by the founder of modern Turkey, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk (1881-1938), in 1928 and from 1932, who are able to read the Ottoman script, have not been engaged in the academic study of the Bahá’í Faith and its Ottoman writings.
This paper includes what is probably the first study and provisional translation of an Ottoman Turkish tablet of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá. The original text appears in the previously mentioned collection of Turkish tablets and prayers by ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, entitled Majmú‘ih-yi Alváḥ wa Munájáthá-yi Turkí. The recipient and date of this commentary remain unknown. However, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá ends it by saying that he dictated it to a certain Nesib Effendi. No direct references are made to the Bahá’í Faith or its teachings in the commentary. It is possible from ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s comment, “as thine Excellency knows,” that this piece is an answer to an inquiry by one of the many Ottoman officials in Palestine and elsewhere with whom ‘Abdu’l-Bahá was in contact. In it, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá comments on the first verse “By the Fig and the Olive” (wa’t-tín wa’z-zaytún) of Sura 95 of the Qur’án. Moreover, he presents a tafsír or commentary on the entire sura. After informing the addressee about the traditional and exoteric interpretations of the commentators of the Qur’án, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá offers spiritual meanings and an esoteric exegesis of this Qur’ánic chapter. The first part of this article is an overview of the Islamic and the biblical background of the motifs in Sura 95, followed by ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s interpretation of the sura with cross-references to other Bahá’í writings. A provisional translation of the ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s commentary is appended.
Sura 95, known as Tín, or the “Fig,” is, most probably, one of the earliest Meccan revelations that Muḥammad had received. It belongs to a category of chapters which begin with so-called “introductory oath clusters”; more specifically, it is one of the suras beginning with oaths alluding to sacred localities. The sura begins with the swearing of an oath, by “the Fig” (at-tín), “the Olive” (az-zaytún), “Mount Sinai” (ṭúr sínín) and the “City of security” (al-balad al-amín), that God has created man in the best form (aḥsan taqwím); he is then degraded to the “lowest of the low” (asfala sáfilín). Only those who believe and lead a moral life will receive an abiding reward. This is a testimony to the last two verses where the coming of the Judgement Day (ad-dín) is assured and that God is the “wisest of the judges” (aḥkam al-ḥákimín). The majority of Muslim scholars regard it as a Meccan revelation, supported by the image of “this City of security” for Mecca.
The “Fig” appears only once in the Qur’án, while the “Olive” is mentioned several times. Different interpretations exist regarding their meaning. According to some, they represent the fruits themselves. God is swearing by them because of their benefits. The fig was regarded as wholesome and easy to digest, a medicine for various diseases; it softens the human nature, reduces phlegm, removes the filth in the liver and kidneys, and eliminates haemorrhoids. Muḥammad is reported to have recommended that the believers eat figs and to have stated that had He chosen a fruit to have descended from Paradise it would have been the fig.
In the Indian tradition as well, we come across the fig tree in paradise, as the “Tree of Life” or the “cosmic tree”. In the Bhagavad-Gita (15:1-3), it is a giant cosmic “upside-down-tree” with its roots in the sky and its branches covering the earth, its leaves representing the hymns of the Veda. “The eternal asvattha (“fig tree”; Ficus religiosus) is a manifestation of Brahma in the universe.” Hebraic and Islamic traditions likewise offer the same image of the Tree of Life. Yusuf Ali, translator of the Qur’án, notes with regard to the “Fig” in Sura 95: “It has been suggested that the Fig stands for the Ficus Indica, the Bo-tree, under which Gautama Buddha obtained Nirvana… if accepted it would cover pristine Buddhism and the ancient Vedic religions from which it was an offshoot. In this way all the great religions of the world would be indicated” (note 6198). Furthermore, there are Islamic traditions from the Imams on the benefits and importance of the fig:
Another interpretation is that the fig is a metaphor for individuals developing or wasting their potential:
If we take the Fig literally to refer to the fruit of the tree, it can stand as a symbol of man’s destiny in many ways. Under cultivation it can be one of the finest, most delicious, and most wholesome fruits in existence: in its wild state, it is nothing but tiny seeds, and it is insipid, and often full of worms and maggots. So man at his best has a noble destiny: at his worst, he is “the lowest of the low.”