During the course of research on Bahá’í mysticism and metaphysics, I translated this work of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá which is one of the most important sources for this study. This is only a working translation but I felt that it was of a sufficient standard to be worth sharing.
In many ways it is surprising that this important work of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá has not previously been translated as it is his clearest and fullest exposition of many important points. The treatise is all the more remarkable in that ‘Abdu’l-Bahá was only in his teens at the time that he wrote it while in Baghdad at the request of ‘Alí Shawkat Pashá. It takes the form of a commentary on a number of key expressions out of the famous Islamic Tradition: “I was a Hidden Treasure and loved to be known. Therefore I created the Creation that I might be known.” This Tradition is one of that class of Traditions, called Hadíth-i Qudsí, wherein, although the Tradition itself is traced back; to Muhammad, it appears to be God Himself who is speaking in the words of the Tradition. The four words or phrases chosen by ‘Abdu’l-Bahá are: “Hidden Treasure”, “Love”, “Creation”, and “Knowledge”. We can surmise that ‘Alí Shawkat Pashá was a Sufi and an admirer of the writings of Ibn ‘Arabí, for ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s commentary is replete with allusions to themes in the works of that famous Muslim mystic and philosopher.
In the first section on “Hidden Treasure”, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá writes on the Essence of the Absolute and gives examples to demonstrate how the Attributes of God can be within the Essence and still not result in any deviation from Perfect Unity. Also within the “Hidden Treasure” is the Divine Intellect which is the first manifestation caused by the movement of love within the Divine Essence.
In the second section on “Love”, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá writes of the four stages of Love. In the works of philosophers and mystics in Islam this theme is very common. Perhaps the most well-known work with this theme is the Four Journeys of the Rational Soul by Mullá Sadrá. Bahá’u’lláh also refers to this theme when he speaks of the four pathways of Love in the Seven Valleys (in the Valley of Unity). ‘Abdu’l-Bahá himself gave a talk on this theme in London in 1913 What is of particular interest in this treatise is ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s addition of a fifth stage to the usual four.
In the third section on “Creation”, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá tackles one of the key issues that has divided philosophers (especially Islamic philosophers) over many centuries The issue at its simplest level revolves around whether the archetypal forms and the quiddities of all created things, being the objects of the knowledge of God, exist within the Knowledge of God (and therefore because the Knowledge of God is an unchangeable eternal attribute, these share in the Pre-existence of the Essence of the Absolute); or the Essence of the Absolute and Its Knowledge are independent of these archetypal forms which were therefore created and came into being (i.e. are not, pre-existent). This issue that at first may appear inconsequential and merely a question of the point at which one limits one’s definition of God, has in fact many deeper ramifications that have made it a key dividing point between philosophical systems. The first view that these quiddities and archetypal forms are co-eternal with the Essence of God (although at first they have no existence outside the knowledge of God) is the position of the Peripatetic philosophers such as Aristotle, al-Fárabí and Ibn Síná. It was also followed by Shaykh Ahmad al-Ahsá’í. From this view-point, God is totally outside His Creation and there is no resemblance nor any connection between the two. Thus His Essence and His Attributes (such as Seeing and Hearing) are not like our essence and our attributes and any resemblance is in name only. This view-point leads to a rigidly dualistic universe. Its social consequences are a tendency towards ritualism and legalism in ritual practice— i.e. that humanity’s relationship to God is primarily concerned with worship and obedience to His law.
The second view regards all existence as emanating from God and all except God being absolute non-existence. Thus the archetypal forms and quiddities are regarded as having been created and come into being as a stage in emanation from the Absolute. This is the position of the philosophers of the Neo-Platonic School such as Porphyry and Ibn al-‘Arabí. The relationship between God and humanity thus tends towards mutuality. True fulfilment for a human being from this point of view is to realise and return to his or her reality as an emanation from God. This is a movement away from strict dualism although many who follow this school cannot be regarded as monists.
The social consequences of this are a tendency away from legalism and ritualism towards mysticism and theosophy.
The dichotomy between these two views is not however unique to Islam. The two differing paths of Knowledge (and its concomitant attitude of worship and devotion) and of Love (and the direct sapiential access to truth) are to be found to some extent in every religious tradition. In Hinduism, for example, the first is to be found in the Bakhti tradition and the second in the teachings of Shankara. In Buddhism, the respective parallels are the Zen and the Jodo tradition. In Judaism, Christianity and Islam, there is a strong mystical tradition that can be set against the main tradition of worship and legalism.
‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s resolution of this difference is extremely interesting. Basically ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, having earlier in this treatise established that no absolute knowledge of God is possible for human beings, now states that these different philosophical opinions arise from differences within the observer. Some because of their essential constitution view the matter one way and others view it in what appears to be the opposite light (according to which of the Names of God is predominant in their nature). What ‘Abdu’l-Bahá appears to be saying is that all men’s views on this metaphysical issue (and by implication all metaphysical issues) are inevitably and inescapably “coloured” by their essential constitution. This exposition of metaphysical relativism is an extremely important formulation, perhaps a key concept for Bahá’í metaphysics. It can be applied to many metaphysical and other problems. There is of course the obvious application to the dichotomy between the monistic and the dualistic views of Reality. However, at another level, and perhaps to bring the issues raised here up to date, the two view-points being discussed here can be seen as to be essentially the same as the dichotomy between the heart and the mind; between intuition and reason as modes of obtaining knowledge; and even, in this day (because of the manner in which science is considered to have monopolised rationality) between religion and science. The idea of one of the Names of God being predominant within an individual is obviously of relevance for a Bahá’í psychology. By implication, it may also have implications for a Bahá’í sociology for it may be considered that certain cultures have one of the Names of God paramount within them (the West tending towards science and rationality; the East towards intuition and mysticism).
In the fourth section on “knowledge”, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá gives a more detailed analysis of why it is impossible for a human being ever to attain knowledge of God. He then underlines the idea of metaphysical relativism by asserting that the most that human beings can ever hope to discern of God is to come to know more fully the signs of God within themselves. He quotes the Qur’anic verse: “Read your own book, your self is sufficient to give an account against you this day ”. He states that this verse is like the point of a compass. However far human beings may travel in their search for knowledge of God, ultimately they are only travelling in a circle around the implications of this verse. These signs of God within the human being are best and most fully uncovered through the guidance of one of those Manifestations of the Divinity who appear upon the earth from time to time. Thus the Knowledge of God referred to in this tradition is the recognition of the Manifestation of God and, under the latter’s guidance, fuller knowledge of the signs of God within each individual human being.
…And to continue: To him who looks at these lines understands these indications, it is well known with respect to the request of that traveller upon the paths of guidance, that bondsman of the King of Divine Authority, that seeker of the hidden Divine secrets, that knower of the secret Heavenly signs, that lover of the household and family of his holiness Mustafa [i.e. Muhammad], the favoured friend of the wayfarers and he who has clung to the Firmest Handle of God [urwatu’lláh al-wuthqá] and to the Strongest Rope, ‘Alí Shawkat Pashá, son of the late Agha Husayn Pashá (may God designate for him whatever He wishes), that he has wished this wayfarer upon the Path to write a brief explanation and a short beneficial commentary upon the Holy Tradition [hadíth-i qudsí]: “I was a Hidden Treasure and loved to be known. Therefore I created the Creation that I might be known.”
In the pearl of each word of this divine song and this heavenly melody, there undoubtedly lie hid unnumbered pearls of hidden knowledge and in the existence of every letter of it, limitless oceans of meaning are concealed. But a sprinkling from that ocean of waves and a drop from that sea may be disseminated on account of the request of friends. And I hope that the explanation of these holy words and heavenly signs may contain the hidden confirmations of the Lord of Might and that His Assistance and unseen Mercy may be made manifest; verily He is the King, the Helper. In the hidden treasures and store-houses of these Heavenly words, the secrets of created things, the cause of the creation of existing things and the raising up of Contingent Being lie concealed.
Know, O bird of the flower-garden of Divine Unity and nightingale of the garden of detachment, that in order to comprehend this Tradition: “I was a Hidden Treasure and loved to be known. Therefore I created the Creation that I might be known”, it is necessary to understand four stations. This Tradition is upon the tongues of all people, be they of the generality or of special rank and is written in all the books and treatises. As for understanding these four stations, the first is “the Hidden Treasure”; the second is the stages and stations of “Love”; the third is the station of “Creation” and similar matters; and the fourth is the station of “Knowledge”.