Some Notes on the Islamic Background and Babi-Baha'i use of the phrase ارض كثيب الاحمر (ard kathib al-ahmar), "Land of the Red [Crimson] Sand-Dune".
Stephen N. Lambden (revised 2006 + 2014)
Last partially corrected 17-08-2015.
This note is being expanded and corrected. It is a corrected and slightly expanded version of a posting which appeared on the Talisman listserve on Sept 5th 1995 entitled: "Land of the Red Sand-dune".
The phrase "land of the Red Sand-dune" in the Arabic original of the Sahīfa bayn al-ḥaramayn ("Epistle Between the Two Shrines") is arḍ kathīb al-aḥmar where arḍ = earth, land, kathīb = sand-dune and aḥmar = red/crimson). In his The Promised Day is come Shoghi Effendi translated arḍ kathīb al-aḥmar as "Crimson Hill" (PDC: 21). It is worth noting that Fadil-i Mazandarani in his Bābī-Bahā'ī lexicon Asrar al-athar ("Traces of the Mysteries") Vol. 4:12 correctly glosses the Arabic word kathīb with the Persian til-i rig meaning "sandhill" and kathīb aḥmar as (Persian) til-i rig-i surkhi or "red/crimson sandhill". He also gives a few examples of the latter phrase some of which I translate below .
The phrase arḍ kathīb al-aḥmar has its background in qur'anic exegesis and mystical cosmology and eschatology. The word kathīb ("sand-ridge/dune/hill") and associated terms is found , for example, in the works of Ibn `Arabi and various of his disciples or members of his tradition or `school'. From its place in Islamic mysticism to some degree mediated via early Shaykhism the Bāb and Bahā'-Allāh derive their use of this expression for kathīb al-aḥmar ( "red / crimson sand-dune/hill") and similar expressions occur occasionally in the writings of both the Bāb and Bahā'-Allāh. They often relate to mystical cosmology relative to the beatific vision of the Divine (cf. Moses' vision on "Mount Sinai"). The following notes illustrate the background to this arcane phrase and highlight the fact that the Bāb and Bahā'-Allāh drew upon the mystical language of the Islamic esoteric tradition.
The Arabic hapax legomenon kathīb (root K-TH-B; kathaba = `to collect together') occurs only at Qur'an 73:14b:
"Upon the [eschatological] day when the earth and the mountains shall quake and the mountains become a slipping heap of sand (kathīb)" (trans. Arberry)
Kathīb basically means something collected and can have a special application to sand; hence kathīb can mean sandhill, sand-dune; sand-ridge or hill[ock] etc.
The genitive phrase kathīb al-aḥmar is perhaps rooted in Qur'an 73:14b and is found in extra-qur'anic revelations known as hadith qudsi ("sacred traditions") as well as in certain Shi`i supplications. One such prophetic hadith qudsi of interest records a version of the story of Moses and the angel of death rooted in Jewish legends at the close of which Muhammad says,
"If I were there, I would show you his [Moses'] grave by the side of the road at the red sand-ridge (kathīb al-aḥmar )" (trans. W.A. Graham, Divine Word... p.158).
Other references to kathīb al-aḥmar can be found in Sunni hadith. A few are listed in Wensinck, Concordance et indices de la Tradition Musulmane (Vol. V-VI: 532).
Kathīb and related expressions formed with this word are to be found in the writings of Muhyi al-Din Ibn al-`Arabi (d.1240 CE) the "Great Shaykh" who drew heavily upon the rich corpus of Sunni traditions. As Affifi points out in his The Mystical Philosophy of Muhyid din ibnul Arabi (Rep. Lahore: Sh. Muhammad Ashraf, 1964) "... kathīb (sand-hill).. in Muslim "tradition" stands for the place where all people will assemble on the Day of Judgement." (p.168-9+fn.1). He notes that Ibn `Arabi relates it to the Divine Reality and has it that kathīb
"is a heap of "white musk" in which all souls will assemble in the "next world"..."(ibid, 169).
In Ibn `Arabi's writimngs furthermore, kathīb is associated with a place from which the vision of God can be contemplated or realized (cf. Moses' Sinaitic vision). Thus in al-Futūḥāt al-makkiyya ("The Meccan Openings", III:426) there is reference to kathīb al-ru'ya (lit. "the sandhill of the vision"). At the beginning of the third of the mystical odes which make up the Tarjuman al-ashwaq (written 1215 CE) we read,
"O my two friends, pass by al-Kathīb and turn towarḍs La`la` and seek the waters of Yalamlam.." (Arabic, Nicholson, 16, trans. 53). Ibn `Arabi himself glossed al-Kathīb here as "the place of contemplation" (ibid, 54).
One of Ibn `Arabi's works is entitled Kitab al-tarajim ("The Book of the Translations"). It has a paragraph headed Bāb al-tarajim al-kathīb ("Section concerning the Translation of Sand-dune"). Six senses, four subtle meanings (laṭīfa) and two allusive senses (ishāra) are spelled out. Very roughly translated this section begins,
"Subtle meaning (laṭīfa): 'Footsteps which are not established on the Sand-ridge (al-kathīb)' indicates people on the Day of Resurrection who will be about the White Sand-ridge (fi'l-kathīb al-abyad) nigh the vision of God (ru'yat Allah), Exalted be He."
Another work of Ibn `Arabi is entitled Risālat al-anwar fima yumnah sahib al-khalwa min al-asrar ("Treatise on the Lights in the Secrets Granted One Who Undertakes the Retreat" 1205 CE) which has been translated by Rabia Terri Harris as Journey to the Lord of Power ( East West Publications: London and the Hague, 1981). In this work various "Realms" (mawatin) are spoken about six of which are foundational. It is the case in Ibn `Arabi's own words that "The sixth Realm is the Sand Dune outside the Garḍen." ( Harris, 27). These "Realms" are basically an incomprehensible multiplicity "And in each of these Realms are places which are Realms within Realms, and the realization of them in their multiplicity is not within human power." (Ibn `Arabi, ibid).
`Abd al-Karim al-Jili (d.c. 1408/17 CE) has commented on Ibn `Arabi's Risala al-anwar.. in his al-Isfar `an risala al-anwar.. ("The Unveiling of the `Treatise on ther Lights.."). On "The sixth Realm is the Sand Dune (kathīb)." al-Jili comments,
"It is a hill of white musk where the creatures are at the time of the vision of God Glorious and Exalted. It is "Outside the Garden" because it is in the Garden of Eden which is the stronghold and citadel outside the other Gardens. The majority of people will not enter the Presence and Qualities of the King except by virtue of visiting this place." (trans. Rabia Terri Harris, 76).
WRITINGS OF THE Bāb
An example of the phrase under discussion exists in (one of) the Bāb's
Tafsir al-hā' ("Commentary on the Letter H"):
"And if this day you fail to differentiate your right-hand from your left-hand (?) on account of the veiled splendors of the intimate subtleties (subuḥāt al-daqā'iq) and the recondite allusions (isharat al-raqa'iq) it is not seemly that you journey unto God in the land of the Crimson Hill ([Red Sand-Dune] arḍ kathīb al-aḥmar )" (cited Mazandarani, Athar al-asrar 4:13)
A similar example of kathīb al-aḥmar in the Bāb's writings is found in the Tafsir Sura `wa'l-asr!' ("Commentary on the Sura of 'By the Forenoon!'" Q.113) where we read,
"Then cometh the fifty-sixth letter which is the letter "B" indicating the distress of God (bila' Allah) over the life of the world before the denizens of Paradise. Again it indicateth the distress of God (bila' Allah) before the people of Ridwan. Then also it is the distress of God (bila' Allah) before the people of the Crimson Hill (`red sand-dune' arḍ kathīb al-aḥmar )..." (text in INBMC 69:60).
WRITINGS OF BAHĀ'-ALLĀH
In what may be an early Tablet of Bahā'-Allāh (or the Bāb?) we read,
"O letter "H" (hā')! Hearken unto the call of the letter "H" (al-ha' = huwiyya = the Manifestation of God?) which crieth out in the Crimson Hill (`Sand-Dune'; kathīb al-aḥmar ) which is the station wherein the decree of foreordainment (hukm al-qadar) cometh to pass [is actualized, terminated." (Arabic text cited Mazandarani Asrar 4:13).
In his Tablet to `Alī Pasha (d.1871 CE) known as the (Arabic) Lawḥ-i Ra'is ("Tablet of the Leader") Bahā'-Allāh predicts the fall of the Sultan of Turkey and the disruption of Ottoman authority. This to the degree that even nature would be made to lament. Bahā'-Allāh refers to the fact that,
"the kathīb ("Sand-dune") in the high hills (kathīb fi'l-hid.ab) will wail, the trees in the mountains lament and blood be made to flow from everything." (text MAM:89).
One of the Tablets to Salman contains the beatitude: "Blessed be such as proceed upon the Crimson Hill (`Sand-dune', kathīb al-aḥmar ). The phrase arḍ kathīb al-aḥmar also occurs in the Surat al-muluk ("Sura of the Kings" c. 1867 CE);
"O kings of the earth! Give ear unto the Voice of God, calling from this sublime, this fruit-laden Tree that hath sprung up out of the Crimson Hill (arḍ kathīb al-aḥmar ) upon the Holy [Sinaitic] Plain, intoning the words:"There is none other God but He, the Mighty, the All-Powerful, the All-Wise." This is the [Sinaitic] Seat (lit. locale; buq`a) which God hath blessed...Within it the Call of God can be hearḍ from the Elevated Lote-Tree of Holiness [Bahā'-Allāh].." (see further my Sinaitic
Mysteries...SBBR V:137-8 & fn 200).
FROM VARIOUS TABLETS OF `ABD AL-BAHA'
A Persian Tablet of `Abd al-Baha' to Aqa Mirza Fadl Allah contains an explanation of some key terms found in certain of Bahā'-Allāh's Tablets;
By the crimson land (arḍ-i ḥamrā') and crimson hill (kathīb-i aḥmar ) is intended the station of the Divine Accomplishment [Realization] (maqām-i qiḍā') for, in the technical terminology of the people of God (ahl Allah = Sufis), snow-white (bayḍā') indicates the station of the Divine Will (maqām-i mashiyyat) while green (khidra') signifies the station of the Divine Foreordainment (maqām-i qadar). Crimson (aḥmar ) indicates the station of the Divine Accomplishment (maqām-i qiḍā') and yellow (sifra') the station of the Divine Completion (maqām-i imḍā'). Wherefore is it that crimson land (arḍ-i ḥamrā') signifieth the station of the most-great martyrdom [testimony] (shahadat-i kubra')." (Text in Ma'ida-yi asmani 2:48 + AA 4:17).
The phrase arḍ kathīb al-aḥmar is found in the writings of the Bāb and Bahā'-Allāh. It is rooted in Islamic cosmology, theosophy and mysticism. A celestial region is indicated where the contemplative is capable of experiencing the vision of God. To attain the "land of the crimson Sandhill" is to attain the possibility of the eschatological beautific Vision.