A Shī`ī-Shaykhī phrase in the al-Kitāb al-aqdas (The Most Holy Book) of Baha'-Allah

Translation and Significance of a Shī`ī-Shaykhī phrase in the al-Kitāb al-Aqdas (The Most Holy Book) of Bahā’-Allāh, the Sirr al-tankīs li-ramz al-ra'īs or ("The Mystery of Reversal before the Sign of the Sovereign”).

 

Stephen Lambden UCMerced.

Written 1982 + slightly rev. 2007.

Being completed and uploaded 2017.

 In the title above I have translated the Arabic phrase  sirr al-tankīs li-ramz al-ra'īs fairly literally and slightly differently from the authorized Bahā’ī rendering found in  paragraph 157 of the recently printed full English translation of Bahā’-Allāh's  Arabic "Most Holy Book" (al-kitāb al-aqdas) which reads (with selected text and transliteration added by me):

 "Behold, the "mystery of the Great Reversal in the Sign of the Sovereign" (sirr al-tankīs li-ramz al-ra'īs) hath now been made manifest. Well is it with him whom God hath aided to recognize the "Six" (     ) raised up by virtue of this "Upright Alif" [Arabic letter A]  (       ); he, verily, is of those whose faith is true. How many the outwardly pious who have turned away, and how many the wayward who have drawn nigh, exclaiming: "All praise be to Thee, O Thou the Desire of the worlds!" In truth, it is in the hand of God to give what He willeth to whomsoever He willeth, and to withhold what He pleaseth from whomsoever He may wish. He knoweth the inner secrets of the hearts and the meaning hidden in a mocker's wink. How many an embodiment of heedlessness who came unto Us with purity of heart have We established upon the seat of Our acceptance; and how many an exponent of wisdom have We in all justice consigned to the fire. We are, in truth, the One to judge. He it is Who is the manifestation of "God doeth whatsoever He pleaseth", and abideth upon the throne of "He ordaineth whatsoever He chooseth". (authorized trans. BWC., Haifa, Israel, 2000,  Para/ 157., page X).

The opening quotation in the above paragraph, the phrase sirr al-tankīs li-ramz al-ra'’īs  ("the mystery of the [Great] Reversal in [or before] the Sign of the Sovereign") is found in the writings of Shaykh Aḥmad ibn Zayn al-Dīn al-Aḥsā'ī (1753-1826 CE), the founder of the Shaykhī school of Shī`ī Islam. The sentences which follow basically interpret these words relative to an eschatological reversal of faith status in messianic times or the eschatological age. In this paper an attempt will be made to comment on this paragraph in the light of the Biblical roots of the notion of "reversal"  and its Islamic  and Shaykhī background as well as various exegetical Tablets and Bahā'-Allāh and  his Bahā’ī successors `Abd al-Bahā’ `Abbās (1844-1921 CE) and Shoghī Effendi Rabbanī (c. 1896-1957 CE)..

Mention is made in numerous Islamic devotional and other literatures of al-ism al-a`ẓam or (there are several variants) the ism Allāh al‑a'ẓam (the Mightiest Name of God”). It is said to be of great power and be capable when uttered of working miracles and wonders of various kinds. Knowledge of  the Mightiest or Greatest Name  is said to confer great spiritual power or to afford protection from evil and misfortune when recited or worn as a talismanic device or on an amulet.  E.g. ADD HERE

 Both Sunnī and Shī`ī writings contain traditions (aḥadīth) which either directly or indirectly represent or purport to set forth this "greatest name of God" in talismanic or diagrammatic form. The following is an example of one representation of the "greateat name of God" (there are many variants) as found in commentary of Sayyid Kāẓim Rashtī (d.1259/1843) upon the graphical form of the Mightiest Name of God ascribed to Imam `Alī ibn Abī Ṭālib (d. 40/661) - the sometimes seven sigla or elements of this diagram of the Mightiest Name have been the subject of complicated interpretations by Imamī Shī`īs of various branches, including Ismā’īlīs and Shaykhīs as well as  Bābīs and a few Bahā'īs: 25

[1-2]

ثلث عُصى صُففَْت بعد خَاتم

Three  rods (`uṣiyy)  in a row [| | |] after  [1] a seal [khātam = ]

[2]

على را سها مثل السنان المُقوم

above them [2] the likeness of a straightened lance. 

[3]

و ميم  طميس ابترثم سُلم   

A blind [Arabic letter] Mﻡ    (mīm) without a tail;      

[4]

        كهئة السلام [الى كل مامول] و ليس بسلم       

After the form of a ladder [ unto all that is hoped for] but which is not a ladder.                           

[5]

واربعة مثل الاصابع صففت  تشيرالى الخيرات من غير معصم

Four things like fingers in a row [IIII], pointing to good deeds but without a wrist,

     [6]

 

وهاء شقيق  

And a [letter] "H" (hā ) which is cleft (shaqīq),  

[7]

 

  ثم واو منكوس كانبوب حجام و ليس بمحجم

Then an inverted [Arabic letter] wāw (="w") (و  ) like the syphon of a [blood-letting] phlebotomist (ka‑anbūb ḥajjām, or "tube of  the cupper") though it is not a cupping glass (muhjam).

 

The sirr al‑tankīs…  (`the mystery of inversion') element (following the pentalpha or five pointed star in the diagram cited above (which is not always or only  located here) has to do with the interpretation of the element     understood to be an inverted, extended Arabic letter “w” (spelled out in full = wāw) in this and similar representations of the al-ism al-a`zam, "mightiest [greatest] name of God". The sirr al-tankīs has to do with the secret, symbolic sense of the letter “W” here reversed or upside down and greatly elongated. lt represents an inverted (Arabic) letter "w" (و  ), a wāw (="w") with an `extended tail'.

In certain of the writings of Shaykh Aḥmad al‑Ahsā'ī (1752‑1826) the founder of the Shaykhī school of Shī`ī Islam the sirr al‑tankīs is mentioned and commented upon often in highly abstruse fashion. In the al‑Risāla al‑Rashtiyya of al‑Ahsā'ī it is stated that (in one form of the greatest name of God) the inverted wāw represents the Qā'im or eschatological 12th Imām and that its being inverted is a reference to his return. This interpretation is based on the fact that the letter wāw (        ) when written out in full is composed of three letters (                  ). The first wāw of           represents the 6 days of creation (refer Qur'ān 50:38, etc., cf. Genesis 1), the second wāw the days in which "the first/primal" (al‑ūlū  = the eschatological era which comes with the rise and mission of the Qā'im ?) was created and the alif (in the middle) signifies the messianic Qā'im or one who rises up between these two "creations". 26

The "Great Reversal" in the Tablet of the Veil (Lawḥ-i Qinā').           

     The Tablet of the Veil (Lawḥ-i Qinā)'  was written for the anti-Bābī-Bahā'ī Shaykhī leader Karām Khān Kirmānī (d.1871), sometime between c.1869‑and 1871 CE?). In this work Bahā’-Allāh  refers to the a reply by Shaykh Aḥmad to a question about the phrase "the Qā'im exists in the loins" (written in 1783 CE). In this treatise of Shaykh Aḥmad reference is made to the sirr al‑tankīs   ("Mystery of the Great Reversal") as follows,

 "Six days have elapsed and the alif (letter A) is the completion, no more need be said, and the (other) six refers to the other days. Otherwise why was the going back produced, for it is the mystery of great reversal in the sign of the Sovereign (sirr al‑tankīs li‑ramz al‑ra'īs)." 27

Here al‑Ahsā'ī appears to indicate that the Qā'im (= the alif) will appear at the end of the era or cycle of the six days of creation as their ultimate goal or completion. The era of the 6 days of creation has been understood to signify the prophetic missions of the often six, and variously identified, prophets ulū al‑`azm (cf. Qur'ān 46:34), prophets "endowed with constancy" (i.e. Adam, Noah, Abraham, Moses, Jesus and  Muhammad). 28 Also that the final wāw (of           ) or the "(other) six" has to do with the `other days' or era of the "return" (raj`a) hence the inverted backward stretching wāw (in the graphic "greatest name of God" representation ascribed to Imam `Alī) indicating the eschatological "return" (raj`ah)  of past peoples. Such at least may be something of the meaning of al-Ahsā'ī.

The "Great Reversal" in the Lawḥ‑i Hirtīk,  "The Mystery of Inversion before the Symbol of the Ruler" .

Written shortly before the al-Kitāb al‑Aqdas the  Lawh‑i Hartik  is an important Arabic Tablet of BA addressed to George David Hardegg (1812-1879 CE) In this significant Tablet we read,

"O Friend! Observe the mystery of the Great Reversal in the sign of the Sovereign" for He hath made their exalted ones their lowly ones and their lowly ones their exalted ones. Call thou to mind the fact that when Jesus came he was rejected by the divines, the learned and the educated whilst he who was a mere fisherman entered the Kingdom. This is the mystery of what was mentioned in the heart of the words by means of symbols and allusions." 

 The general sense of this paragraph (IV.) of the Lawh‑i Hirtīk is that the predicted eschatological `reversal' or `inversion' of faith‑status has taken place as alluded to in the sirr al-tankīs (“mystery of the reversal”). With the advent of Bahā’-Allāh, in other words, a new standard of spiritual status has been disclosed such that outward rank is no longer an indication of such status. Just as unlearned or humble men like Peter (= "he who was a mere fisher", cf. above) had responded to Jesus' message while the learned rejected him, so likewise with the coming of Bahā’-Allāh have the "first" or those of renown in the Kingdom ( = "their exalted ones") become the "last" or those of no consequence in the hierarchy of faith (= "their lowly ones"). Such an eschatological `inversion' is indicated in a variety of Biblical texts, Islamic traditions and also in the writings of the Bāb. 23

Bahā’-Allāh not infrequently draws attention to the humble origins of Jesus' first disciples with a view to warning contemporary religionists of the need for humility and openmindedness in investigating his claims. The following passage in the (Lawḥ‑i Pāp)  (Tablet to the Pope)  is similar to that in the Lawḥ‑i Hartīk :  "Call thou to remembrance Him Who was the Spirit [Jeaus], Who, when He came,the most learned of His age pronounced judgement againat Him in his own country, whilst he who was only a fisherman [Peter] believed in Him." 24 In the Lawḥ‑i Hartīk,  however, the eschatological reversal of outward faith status is explicitly related to the sirr al-tankīs li‑ramz al‑ra'īs. 

Bahā'ī interpretations of the sirr al‑tankīs to some extent draw on, though they often go beyond, those which appear to have been envisaged by al‑Aḥsā'ī and his successor Siyyid Kāẓim Rashtī. 29 They are many and complicated and cannot be fully discussed here. 30 It must suffice to make a few remarks about the meaning of the sirr al‑tankīs..   in connection with the eschatological inversion of faith status, of outward rank.

Bahā’-Allāh, `Abdu'l-Bahā and other Bahā'ī writers have given the inverted wāw and its three component letters (when written out in full) eschatologically oriented interpretations in which reference is found to the six `prophets endowed with constancy' (the first wāw), the Bāb (the alif: the Bāb being regarded as the Qā'im) and Bahā’-Allāh (the second wāw) or, as in the Lawh‑i Hartīk,  to the reversal of outward rank with the coming of Bahā’-Allāh (indicated by the ). The fact that the inverted wāw stretches backwards and has an abjad value of six probably led to the idea that the messianic advent of BA has reversed the faith-status or rank of aIl unbelieving religionists.

In one of his explanations of the sirr al‑tankīs   Bahā’-Allāh, as in the Lawḥ‑i Hartīk, relates its mystery to the effect of his revelation and writes, "Thus have We made their exalted ones their lowly ones and their lowly ones their exalted ones. This is the mystery of inversion for the cipher of the chief." 31 

Additions

While no traces of the Bāb's knowledge of the Old Testament have been found (cf. below) certain alleged signs of his knowledge of the New Test have been noted. E. G. Browne in his `Index of Chief Contents of the Persian Bayan' listed seven `signs of the influence of the Gospel on the Persian Bayān' - (See Browne (Ed), Kitáb-i Nuqatu'l-Káf, LXVIII):

" The first shall be last and the last first" (II.16.,17; VIII.4.);

 At first sight this list appears to be a fairly impressive indication of Gospel influence upon the Bāb. Most however, if not all of these motifs listed by Browne find parallels in either the Qur'ān, ḥadīth literature or Sufi and other Islamic writings -- themselves subject, at certain points, to Jewish-Christian or Biblical influence. They are not clear cut proofs of the Bāb's familiarity with the Bible. Each of them will be briefly examined. Firstly, that there will be an eschatological reversal of faith status is indicated in both the New Testament and Islamic tradition. The New Testament are indicated here : Mk 10:31; Matt 19:30, 20:16; Lk 13:30; Matt 23;11-12; Luke 14:11; 18:14; cf. Mk 9:35,10:43-4; Lk 9:48, 22:26. cf. Q. 28:5. One might also refer in this connection to Qur'an 28:5 :

In his Persian Bayān and other writings the Bāb teaches that with each religious dispensation elevated souls become abased and abased souls become elevated ones by virtue of their acceptance or rejection of expected messengers of God. Lofty inmates of the garden (jannat) of true faith, if they fail to accept the claims of the succession of divine manifestations, become abased inhabitants of the fire [of unbelief] (nār). See especially Persian Bayan II.16,17 and. VIII.4. where the Bāb writes;

"In each religious dispensation it transpires that the most elevated of creatures are abased and the most abased of creatures become the most elevated; alternatively, the most elevated become more elevated  [through faith] and the most abased even more abased [through rejection."

During his own religious dispensation lofty souls (learned Muslims) become abased through rejecting him and humble souls were elevated through responding to his call. (P-Bayan VIII.14). The same thing may happen, the Bāb warns the people of the Bayān, on the Day of Resurrection when man yuẓhiru-hu Allāh appears. (P-Bayan VII. 9).

Though rooted in New Testament texts the fact that the Bāb draws on Islamic sources indicative of an eschatological reversal of faith status -- and not directly on the New Testament is strongly suggested at several points in his writings. In Persian Bayān VIII.14. he refers to the fact that learned scholars in the "land of Ṣad" (= Isfāhān) failed to recognise him while a humble Mullā, Ja`far Gandum Pākkān, was invested with the "garb of primacy" (qamīṣ-i niqabat) who was converted to Bābism by Mullā Ḥusayn Bushru'i (d.1849), the first of the eighteen hurufat al-hayy, `Letters of the Living' during the early years of the Bābā movement and died during the ṬabarsĪ upheaval (See Amanat, The Early Years.. p.330 + refs. given there).

This, he then notes, is illustrative of the word of the "people of the house" (ahl-i bayt). During his own dispensation, in other words, the following Islamic tradition found fulfilment:

"The lowest of the creatues [shall become] the most exalted of the creatures and the most exalted of the creatures [shall become] the lowest of the creatures." (P-Bayan VIII.14)

 In illustration of the same theme the Bāb quotes a similar version of an Islamic tradition in his Shu'ūnāt al-farsī  ("Persian Grades").[4] The Bab's Shu'unāt al-farsī  (a work of the latter part of the Bab's ministry, containing, it may be noted, several references to Christians) is contained in INBMC 82:78-133.

It will come to pass that your lowly ones [will become] your most exalted ones and your most exalted ones your lowly ones" (refer  Shu`unāt al-farsī, 94.)

Both BA and `Abd al-Bahā’ have quoted and commented on this Islamic tradition. 

See for example Ishrāq Khāvarī, Rahiq Makhtum. Vol. l:685ff; idem (Ed), MA. l:12f;2:19,34.

Bahā’-Allāh, `Abdu'l‑Bahā and other Bahā'ī writers

Bahā'ī interpretations of the sirr al-tankīs  to some extent draw on, though they often go beyond, those which appear to have been envisaged by Shaykh Aḥmad al-Aḥsā'ī and his successor Sayyid Kāẓim Rashtī. [3] They are many and complicated and cannot be discussed in detail here. It must suffice to make a few remarks about the meaning of the sirr al-tankīs.. in connection with the eschatological inversion of faith status or outward rank. As indicated above,  the phrase sirr al-tankīs..  ("the mystery of inversion") has to do with the interpretation of the meaning implied in this diagrammatic element found in graphic forms of the Greatest Name of God.

 Bahā’-Allāh, `Abdu'l‑Bahā and other Bahā'ī writers have given the inverted wāw and its three component letters (when written out in full) cyclic and eschatologically oriented interpretations.  Allusion is found to [1] the six `prophets endowed with constancy' (the first wāw), [2] the Bāb (the Alif: the Bāb being regarded as the Qā'im ) and [3] Bahā’-Allāh (the second wāw)  Alternatively,  as in the Lawh-i Hirtīk,  to the reversal of outward rank with the coming of Bahā’-Allāh is indicated by the  inverted, reversed  letter W. The fact that the inverted wāw stretches backwards and has an abjad value of six probably led to the idea that the messianic advent of Bahā’-Allāh has reversed the faith‑status or rank of all prefious unbelieving religionists. In one of his explanations of the sirr al-tankīs   Bahā’-Allāh, as in the Lawh-i Hirtīk,, relates its mystery to the effect of his revelation and writes, "Thus have We made their exalted ones their lowly ones and their lowly ones their exalted ones. This is the mystery of inversion for the cipher of the chief." [1]  Such an interpretation of the sirr al-tankīs  is also presupposed in the following passage from Bahā’-Allāh's  al‑Kitāb al- Aqdas  which was most probably written shortly after the  Lawh-i Hirtīk:

"Behold, the "Mystery of Great Reversal in the sign of the Sovereign" (sirr al-tank īs li-ramz al-ra'īs) hath now been made manifest. Well is it with him God hath aided to recognize the "Six" raised up by virtue of this "Upright Alif"; he, verily is of those whose faith is true. How many the outwardly pious who have turned away, and how many the wayward who have drawn nigh, exclaiming: "All praise be to Thee, O Thou the Desire of the worlds!" In truth, it is in the hand of God to give what He willeth to whomsoever He willeth, and to withhold what he pleaseth from whomsoever He may wish. He knoweth the inner secrets of the hearts and the meaning hidden in a mocker's wink. How many an embodiment of heedlessness who came unto Us with purity of heart have We established upon the seat of Our acceptance; and how many an exponent of wisdom have We in all justice consigned to the fire. We are, in truth, the One to judge. He it is Who is the manifestation of "God doeth whatsoever He pleaseth", and abideth upon the throne of "He ordaineth whatsoever He chooseth" (Aqdas 2 [al-Hasanī]:127. trans., Aqdas tr. 1992: ¶157 pp. 75‑6.)            

1 The Lawḥ‑i Qinā of Bahā’u’llāh  is printed in Majmū`ih-yi alwāh-I mubārakih. .. [MAM] 67‑87(see bib. below).

2  MacEoin 19[82] 1994: 146‑7 fn.6. The  letter of al-Aḥsā' ī for Mūsā ibn Muhammad al-Sayīgh can be found in  al‑Aḥsā’ī, al-Risāla al-rashtīya  in Jawāmi` al-Kilām  1273/6.) esp. 1:103f; Majmū`at al-rasā'il  (Kirmān, n.d.), pp. 51-3.  cf.also Ishrāq Khāvarī, Qāmūs 4:1642f.

1This Imamite tradition is also cited in the Lawḥ al‑ḥurūfāt al‑muqaṭṭa`āt  (Tablet about the Isolated Letters ‘ c. 1859?) of Bahā’u’llāh )Mā’idih 4:000). It is found in Majlisi’s Biḥār and other Shī`ī compilations of tradition and books of tafsīr.

[1] I omit several very abstruse lines here of the text of the Risāla al‑Rastiyya as cited by Bahā’u’llāh continues. Among other things, the omitted sentences  relate to aspects of the relationship between the numbers  6 and 60 and the letter "A". This passage of Bahā’u’llāh‑Shaykjh Aḥmad is concludes after a few further untranslated sentences (see MAM:87; cf. MacEoin, 1982 [94]:147).

[3] Refer MacEoin, art.cit (fn.26), p.16ff on some statements made in Rafati', 1979 (Ph.D).

[1] Bahā'u'llāh, letter cited Mā’idih 1:14. See also Raḥīq. 1:682, 686, 687, where similar statements are made. In a letter addressed to a certain Asad [Allāh] Bahā'u'llāh identifies the words, "He shall make their exalted ones their lowly ones and their lowly ones their exalted ones"  as an Islamic tradition (ḥadīth), (see Raḥīq Makhtūm 1:687).


ENDNOTES

[1] As will be seen, the Shī`ī graphical form of of the al-ism al-a`ẓam  (Mighttest Name) commented upon by Sayyid Kāẓim (there are numerous variants) has thirteen (within 7) elements counting from the inverted, extended letter wāw to the final pentacle (☆) as can be seen above. 

[2]  I wonder if this line might be slighty rewrittten and retranslated : reading al-salālim for  al-salām (= "well-being", "peace"..), " Thus, [4]  "then a ladder like unto the shape of the stairway,  though it is not a ladder "

[2] Arab. text cited from  al‑Būnī, Shams, cited  Winkler, 1930:69‑71 with German trans. 71; text and French trans. Anawati, 1967:24, 27; Eng. trans. MacEoin, 1982 [BSB 1/1:4‑14] = 1992:93‑97  = App. XXIII. I have adapted Mac Eoin’s translation in the light of the other translations and al‑Būnī’s Shams.

 [4]   After citing an extended version of the tradition from Imām `Alī and one of the graphical forms of the al-ism al-a`ẓam, Sayyid Kāḥim defines a [divine] "Name" as a named ẓuhūr, an appearance or theophany. It is  al-mutajallī , a transfiguration or self-manifestation. The mightiest theophany (tajallī al-a`ẓam) of a Name is the reality of the al-ism al-a`ẓam, the Greatest Name of God (Sh-Ism, 271 a-b)]

 

Add Thesis 41x

"The abased among you shall he exalt; and they that are exalted shall he abase." (SE trans.) SEE KI 94 (Per.113) QI

Lawh-i Sarrāj MA 7:34 Bāb cited + BA comments.