Thursday, July 5, 2012

Musings on the Tablet of Ahmad

Reflections from Bahiyyih Nakhjavani, referring to the "Tablet of Ahmad:"

"...We cannot ignore prisons in this Dispensation. Whether they belong to the category of the 'Most Great', which suggests life as well as Akka, or the various prisons of self in which the soul is trapped, we find walls and barred gates throughout the Sacred Writings. As metaphors, too, they remind us that words contain their own deep pits in which the croaking of the raven is heard, for we can become as bound by names and attributes as by any other material chains.

Photo © Baha’i International Community
 The bridge at Büyükçekmece, Turkey, which Bahá’u’lláh and His companions crossed on their way from Constantinople to Adrianople in December 1863.

 "Above all, we have as an example Baha'u'llah's own lifetime of exile and imprisonment. 'Remember My days during thy days,' He quietly admonishes, 'and my distress and banishment in this remote prison.' This too was surely part of His message to our generation. How many times do we find warnings that we should not allow ourselves to be 'debarred' from His Presence, that we should not permit veils to come between our hearts and His Truth? Veils taken to their logical conclusion transform to walls. Over and over again we find Baha'u'llah bewailing the condition of the human race suffocating within its self-constructed prisons, abandoned in its deepest dungeons..."

(Bahiyyih Nakhjavani, Four on an Island, p. 105)

"...We need a collective breakthrough, a kind of creative revolution on a global scale, in response to the principles of the Baha'i Faith in order for its effects to permeate society. This perhaps is one of the themes of the Tablet of Ahmad, and a close study of certain passages from this extraordinary prayer might serve to conclude these thoughts.

"At the beginning of the Tablet of Ahmad, Baha'u'llah announces His Revelation to mankind, through the image of a Nightingale, that symbol of the full-throated Song of God in every Dispensation. As that Divine Bird sings out to us in the dark night of the soul, hidden by our folly and despised, its holy and sweet melodies are heard by four groups of listeners: the sincere ones, the believers in the Divine Unity, the severed ones and the lovers. Since we read from left to right, and have a tendency to move down the page from line to line, it is natural to assume that the four stations likewise move step by step from the first--sincerity--to the last--love. Before we can even listen to the Nightingale we must at least be sincere. Only then can we proceed to believe, which in turn leads us to severance and brings us finally to the station in which we recognize that the message of the Nightingale is one of love.

"However, as we follow Baha'u'llah's instructions, 'Learn well this Tablet, O Ahmad. Chant it during thy days and withhold not thyself therefrom', we cannot help noticing that enigmatic promise at its end: 'Should one who is in affliction or grief read this Tablet with absolute sincerity,' asserts Baha'u'llah, 'God will dispel his sadness, solve his difficulties and remove his afflictions.' Such a promise makes us retrace our steps to the beginning once more and start again, for we question our motives and wonder whether or not we were indeed sincere. So precious is the promise that we find sincerity itself to be our goal. The act of reading the first paragraph, therefore, and proceeding step by step through the four stations ironically enough separates us from the very goal of the prayer--sincerity. We must read forwards and simultaneously think backwards. Unless we love the idea of sincerity we cannot be detached or reach the seat of sanctity. Unless we are severed from earthly thoughts (the very preoccupations with sadness, difficulties and afflictions which may have sent us running to the prayer in the first place), we cannot comprehend the source of this sincerity to be from God 'the King the Glorious, the Peerless'. Until we understand the source we will not realize its central motivating impulse of unity: the purpose of the Revelation, as well as our own goal of sincerity, is for unity, for the fusion of hearts, for the recognition of providence within calamity, and the mingling of contraries. Until we get a glimpse of the meaning of 'Divine Unity' on every level how can we call ourselves sincere?

"There are many of us, whether or not we call ourselves Baha'is, who are lovers of this Faith, who pursue its aims under a myriad social and economic guises, who feel the throb of its message in the arteries of our travailing age. And many lovers have not yet attained severance. We may think these principles and ideas are our own; often as Baha'is we think we know more about them than anyone else. But once we have understood the source to be God, the motivation God, the very choice of our instrumental lives to lie in His acceptance, then our love and our detachment bring us to the shores of Divine Unity. We recognize that whether we want it or not we are being united; whether we accept each other or not our diversity is readily accepted by our Creator. Before His mercy seat, therefore, we begin to turn towards each other, with open arms; embracing the contradictions of our humanity, we begin the search of the sincere. We return to the prayer again, questioning our motives, humbled by our limitations, and read once more from the beginning in an attempt to arrive at the endless end.

"According to Baha'u'llah it is better to be sincere about our doubts than hypocritical about our faith. In one of His tablets He warns the believers in very forceful language against the dangers of insincerity. He says it is preferable to be an inmate of hell itself, than to be a hypocrite; better to be an unbeliever than one who plots and schemes. He even goes so far as to say He would rather men were drunk than malicious, that they were beheaded rather than heartless. He cautions humanity to fear God rather than their own 'priest-prompted superstitions', and concludes by stating that the purpose of His Revelation is to infuse eternal life into the mortal frames of living men.[*]

"It is surely the climax of divine irony, therefore, to discover at the end of the Tablet of Ahmad, that the prize awarded to the one who attained 'absolute sincerity' would be 'the reward of a hundred martyrs and a service in both worlds'. Sincerity grants us a sense of purpose in this world and the next; it is the equivalent of that reward attained by a hundred martyrs. To endure death for the sake of the Cause is a kind of vivid living. It is a service in other worlds which intensifies our privilege of serving in this one..."

(Bahiyyih Nakhjavani, Four on an Island, pp. 120-123)

[*] Blogger's Note: Ms. Nakhjavani, writing in 1983, is describing a passage that has since appeared in an authorized English translation. See "Trustworthiness: A Cardinal Baha'i Virtue," January 1987, Compiled by the Research Department of the Universal House of Justice. The Compilation of Compilations vol II, p. 337, #2050. Here is that passage from Baha'u'llah:

Be thou of the people of hell-fire, but be not a hypocrite.
Be thou an unbeliever, but be not a plotter.
Make thy home in taverns, but tread not the path of the mischief-maker.
Fear thou God, but not the priest.
Give to the executioner thy head, but not thy heart.
Let thine abode be under the stone, but seek not the shelter of the cleric.
Thus doth the Holy Reed intone its melodies, and the Nightingale of Paradise warble its song, so that He may infuse life eternal into the mortal frames of men, impart to the temples of dust the essence of the Holy Spirit and the heavenly Light, and draw the transient world, through the potency of a single word, unto the Everlasting Kingdom.

(From a Tablet - translated from the Persian)

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Learn Well This Tablet

July 14, 2012: It gives me great joy to announce that a video of Richard Gurinsky speaking on the Tablet of Ahmad is now available online.  

The Story of Richard Gurinsky’s Book

H. Richard Gurinsky wrote only one book, which received little fanfare.  He didn’t live to see its publication.

Yet his book, with the unpretentious name, Learn Well This Tablet, is sure to garner increased recognition with the passage of time.  Consisting of a phrase-by-phrase study of the Tablet of Ahmad – one of the most widely used Writings of Bahá’u’lláh – Learn Well This Tablet offers a wealth of insights and practical relevance.

For Bahá’í readers in the West, the two primary sources of information on the Tablet of Ahmad have been ‘Abu’l-Qásim Faizí’s article, “A Flame of Fire,” first published in The Bahá’í News in 1967, and Adib Taherzadeh’s 1977 overview in The Revelation of Bahá’u’lláh, Volume 2.

Richard Gurinsky drew on these two excellent sources and, moreover, decades of prayers, fact gathering, relentless cross-referencing with the Bahá’í sacred Writings and the Qur'an -- turning over ideas, asking questions, and discussing the translation, (from the original Arabic into English), of various words and concepts in the Tablet of Ahmad. The result is that Gurinsky has left us a work of transcendence that is more than a book of commentary.  With its constant interspersion of the Creative Word and its brief focused sections, could it not be used as a supplemental daybook for meditation?  With its fearless survey of covenantal fundamentals, factual integrity and broad vision, is it an inspired textbook?  Parts of the book are so taken with the story of the mystic relationship between the revealer of the Tablet of Ahmad, Bahá’u’lláh, and its recipient, Mírzá Ahmad Yazdí, that it captivates the reader like a taut mystery thriller.

Richard Gurinsky’s story is fascinating in its own right. He grew up suffering from a rare disorder that impaired his vision, hearing, and kidney function.  Being born to a Jewish family and raised on Long Island, New York, he attended Hebrew school on weekends, learning prayers and songs in Hebrew.  He went on to attend Swarthmore College and Northwestern University.  In 1970 he became a Christian. The following year, in the precincts of the Bahá’í House of Worship in Wilmette, Illinois, he discovered and enrolled in the Bahá’í Faith and promptly began teaching the Faith. 

In 1972 he attained his Master’s degree in Materials Science, (applied physics), at the age of 27.  Later that same year he married Margaret Loring Giebitz, and he and his bride, who had been a Bahá’í just four months, left New York to homefront pioneer on the Mescalero Apache Indian Reservation in New Mexico.

Lacking permanent employment and responding to the need there, Richard went back to college to gain his teaching credential. He garnered the title “Education Specialist” from New Mexico State University in 1974 and began teaching at the Mescalero Elementary School.  Also around this time, he and Margaret assumed care of an Indian baby with fetal alcohol syndrome, (they later legally adopted this little boy), who had been brought to their dwelling “for the weekend” by a social worker.

During the ten years they lived on the reservation, Margaret gave birth to two of the three children born to them, with the two oldest of the four children going on to start school there.

Life on the reservation was difficult, but from his earliest days as a Bahá’í, Richard had developed a deep reliance upon prayer and an attachment to the Tablet of Ahmad in particular.  The couple was also sustained by their activity and travels as members of the District Teaching Committee and streams of loving encouragement that flowed from cohorts Richard and Pauline Hoff and Bobby and Annie Mitchell.

After Richard Gurinsky and his family moved to nearby Alamogordo in 1982, they continued with the Indian teaching work and Bahá’í service.  Meanwhile, in 1984 Richard began working at New Mexico State University—Alamogordo, where he became an assistant professor of physics and mathematics.  In 1989 the students elected Richard to the school’s highest faculty honor for his teaching excellence.

In the early 1990’s, Richard was thrilled to take part in summer teaching trips to Russia for three consecutive years as a member of the Marion Jack Teaching Project.

In 1993 Richard and Margaret separated and, in the next year, were divorced.

At Bahá’í Unit Convention in 1996 he met Linda Kehoe and subsequently remarried.  By this time, his fragile health had deteriorated and he required peritoneal dialysis multiple times daily.  Using special equipment for the visually impaired, he was able to perform this procedure independently at home.

Through all of these changes he continued to study, research and meditate on the Tablet of Ahmad.  His first version of a book on the subject was strictly a compilation of quotations from the Bahá’í Writings.  However, Brent Poirier, a trusted friend, pointed out that readers would require help in connecting the quotations with understanding the Tablet of Ahmad.  Once Richard was reconciled to the distinction between offering insights and information for consideration, as opposed to presenting one’s own thoughts as authoritative, the book began to assume its current form.

For the last two years of his life Richard was legally blind.  However, with the help of Linda, who read the drafts aloud to him, he continued with increased urgency to press on with his work on Learn Well This Tablet.  When the New Mexico Commission for the Blind was able to provide voice recognition software, it enabled him to work independently and was a tremendous boost toward completing the project.

On April 5, 1999, Richard sent his manuscript – the product of hours and hours of consultation and innumerable rewrites – to the publisher for the third and final time.  The following day, he received a phone call informing him that, at last, he was to travel to Dallas, Texas for a kidney transplant. He received the transplant the next day, on April 7th.  While still in the hospital, he was able to sign the book contract with George Ronald, Publisher.  He returned home to New Mexico on May 25.  Richard Gurinsky died a month later on June 24, 1999Learn Well This Tablet was published the following year.

Among the speakers at his funeral was a longtime friend, Meredith Begay, a Mescalero Apache who was the first of her tribe to embrace the Faith of Bahá’u’lláh.  In a gesture of the highest respect, she presented a beautiful Indian blanket that was draped over Richard’s coffin and buried with him.


When we hold Richard Gurinsky’s book in our hands, it is obvious that such a book should have been written.  What is not obvious – in common patterns of mortal thought – is that a mathematician of Russian Jewish descent from New York with physical disabilities, already living a life of service in the desert, should make the sacrifice for which the writing of a worthy study of the Tablet of Ahmad called.  Richard didn’t consider it a sacrifice.  

It is here that we turn to the overarching universality and power of the Tablet of Ahmad itself.  The original Tablet, written in small fine Arabic script in Bahá’u’lláh’s own hand, is on a rectangle of thick, now discolored, paper of less than 4 x 6 inches, with a slight ink smear on it.  It is about the size of a medium-large postcard we would send nowadays.  Yet, the world will come to recognize it as among the single most potent and precious messages in religious history.

The excerpt below from Learn Well This Tablet, which follows an account of Ahmad’s life in Chapter 1 and a meditation on the meaning of Ahmad’s heroic life in Chapter 2, constitutes half of the third chapter of Learn Well This Tablet.   This is one of many passages that refer to the effect the Tablet of Ahmad had on its initial recipient:

Several features of Ahmad’s story merit our attention.  Foremost among them is Ahmad’s obedience to the teaching mission Bahá’u’lláh entrusted to him.  Ahmad tells us he studied his Tablet until he discovered its purpose and once he found out what Bahá’u’lláh was calling him to do, he immediately arose to carry out the bidding of his Lord. This is even more significant considering that Ahmad could no longer bear being separated from Bahá’u’lláh at the time he received this Tablet.  Ahmad’s decision to give up his intention to visit Bahá’u’lláh and [instead] return to Persia to teach suggests that within this Tablet Bahá’u’lláh placed a great power.  Such was this power that it also enabled Ahmad to carry out his arduous teaching mission for the rest of his long life.

Another aspect of this story is Ahmad’s age and the very great distances he walked.  Ahmad was not a young man when he decided to leave Baghdád and visit Bahá’u’lláh.  Since Ahmad was born about 1805 and he received the Tablet in 1865 or thereabouts, we know that Ahmad was about 60 years old when Bahá’u’lláh sent the Tablet to him.  Ahmad had just walked the entire distance from Baghdád to Constantinople – more than 1100 miles or 1700 kilometres – when he received this Tablet.  Adrianople is another 160 miles, 260 kilometres, from Constantinople.  However, Ahmad did not choose this easier path.  Instead, he directed his steps to Persia.  From Constantinople, Ahmad walked another 1400 miles, 2240 kilometres, to reach his destination.  Such a feat is almost unimaginable today, although, of course, it was more common in the 19th century.  Yet once he arrived in Persia, Ahmad did not rest.  He continued walking around the country, teaching the Bábís.

Gurinsky goes on in Chapter 5 to enumerate twenty themes “that appear to be included in the Tablet of Ahmad.”  He states point blank: “To study this Tablet is to undertake a concise course in the fundamental verities of the Bahá’í Faith.”  He then confirms and illustrates this statement throughout the rest of the book.

Learn Well This Tablet is replete with scholarly analysis. (See especially the book’s extensive footnotes and the learned introduction by Todd Lawson, which include a survey of the Islamic roots of the Tablet of Ahmad.)  However, do not think that it lacks in warmth or practicality.  Consider this example of application for the individual from page 280:

In the Tablet of Ahmad Bahá’u’lláh assures us that ‘God will dispel his sadness, solve his difficulties, and remove his afflictions’.  In this verse He gives us three specific promises of divine assistance.  The order and sequence of these three promises may be particularly significant.  He may be suggesting that God leads us through a spiritual process, a series of steps in helping us overcome problems.  If this is so, then He says the initial step is for God to help us dispel our sadness.  Next He will help us solve our difficulties and finally He will assist us to remove our afflictions.  Bahá’u’lláh appears to be suggesting a specific approach to spiritual problem-solving.

This passage suggests that Bahá’u’lláh is telling us that we must first gain control over our own emotions and mental state.  This frees us to figure out what the real problem is and take appropriate action.

Here is a sample of the book’s personal tone, from its Epilogue:

A particular feature of this Tablet is its call to Ahmad.  ‘Ahmad’ derives from the Arabic verb ‘to praise’, ‘to exalt’ and is translated ‘most praiseworthy’.  So when Bahá’u’lláh calls out ‘O Ahmad!’ He is addressing Ahmad of Yazd, for whom the Tablet was revealed, and, at the same time, each one of us.

‘O Ahmad’ may be understood as an appeal to the person reading the Tablet, meaning “O thou who desires to be most praiseworthy in the sight of God’.  For example, when Bahá’u’lláh says ‘O Ahmad! Bear thou witness that he is God’, He may be telling us that if we desire to be most praiseworthy in the sight of God, then we must bear witness in our own lives to the fact that ‘there is no God but Him’.  Similarly, when He calls out ‘O Ahmad! Forget not my bounties while I am absent’, He may be telling us that if we truly want to be most praiseworthy in His sight, then we must never forget how much He loves us and cares for us.  We must also never forget His bounties to us and how He is ever ready and willing to pour His grace upon us.  And finally, when He counsels ‘Learn well this Tablet, O Ahmad’, He may be counseling each one of us to read and study this Tablet regularly so that we, too, like Ahmad before us, may find out what our Lord desires of us.

In a very real sense each one of us is an Ahmad…

If Learn Well This Tablet: A Commentary on the Tablet of Ahmad, is reprinted, as it richly deserves to be, perhaps the following points will be considered for future editions:

  • The Introduction to the book needs some corrections – it currently does not correlate with the chapter numbers in the published version.  On page xvii Todd Lawson refers to a ‘discussion of the “path of God” in chapter 48 and “witness” in Chapter 46.’  However, the “path of God” is actually discussed in chapter 47.  The reference to “witness” may refer to the discussion in chapters 34, 35, and 36.  Page xix of the Introduction refers to a discussion of the Nightingale of Paradise in chapter 7.  However, this discussion takes place in chapter 8.
  •  On page 8 of the book, one finds the following passing reference: “In the final, untranslated, paragraph of this Tablet, Bahá’u’lláh intimates to Ahmad that he should return to Baghdád.”  An English translation of this passage of the Tablet of Ahmad, even a provisional one, would prove of interest.
  •  Many readers of the book have no doubt looked for the complete text of the Tablet of Ahmad in contiguous form, expecting it to be included within the covers of Learn Well This Tablet.    

These considerations aside, the excellence of Learn Well This Tablet reflects the caring and humility of Richard Gurinsky.  The opinions and exegesis he shares are invariably coupled with qualifying terms and expressions such as “this may be,”  “this appears to,” “this suggests,” “it is possible,” “it seems that,” “if this is so,” “in one sense,” “in another sense,” “on one level,” “on another level” “one way of looking at this…” As one of Richard’s friends interviewed for this article put it, he had “a loving tenderness with the Word.” 

Whether in independent study, study circles, or deepening classes, individuals around the world will continue for years to come to engage with the reverential exploration of the Tablet of Ahmad found in Learn Well This Tablet.  This ever-expanding readership will confirm the aptness of a line inscribed on the gravestone of Richard Gurinsky: