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God, the Baha’i teachings say, wants us to think—to independently investigate reality and attempt to understand it on our own terms.
Why? In his Book of Certitude, a highly structured work that discusses the importance of learning to understand the symbolic and metaphorical language of scripture, Baha’u’llah asserts that one of the primary reasons the prophets down through the ages have been initially rejected and persecuted has been the inability of religious leaders to understand the veiled or metaphorical meanings of the prophecies in the utterances of the previous divine messenger.
In other words, God wants us to think for ourselves, go beyond mere imitation and truly understand:
The first teaching of Baha’u’llah is the investigation of reality. Man must seek reality himself, forsaking imitations and adherence to mere hereditary forms. – Abdu’l-Baha, The Promulgation of Universal Peace, p. 180.
To prove his point, Baha’u’llah devoted the first hundred pages or more of The Book of Certitude to explicating the meaning of Christ’s prophecies about the coming of Muhammad as foretold in Matthew 24, verses 29 through 31. He elucidated the meaning of the verses to demonstrate to his largely Muslim audience that their inability to convince Christians that Muhammad had fulfilled Christ’s promise was not, as some Muslim clerics had claimed, the result of the corruption of the scriptures. Rather, Baha’u’llah pointed out, the Muslim teacher had failed to show Christians how to perceive the metaphorical and symbolic meaning of their own scripture—the same plight that prevented Jewish scholars from recognizing Christ as the messiah.
He goes on to note that the Muslim’s own scripture, the Qur’an, clearly foretells the advent of the Bab in fulfillment of prophecies regarding the Qa’im (Arabic for “He who shall arise”). As a demonstration of this thesis, Baha’u’llah continually cites abstruse Qur’anic passages and interprets their metaphorical meaning to show how they prepare Muslims for the events that—by the time of Baha’u’llah’s revelation of The Book of Certitude in 1862—had already occurred.
He concluded this remarkable work about language and the progressive nature of revelation by admonishing the followers of the Bab that they too would be tested in precisely the same way when the succeeding prophet of God—whom the Bab revealed to be Baha’u’llah himself—would appear in fulfillment of prophecies in the writings of the Bab regarding “Him Whom God Will Make Manifest” in 1863.
But in addition to teaching us how to read scripture, Baha’u’llah employed imagery magnificently in those passages and works, where such poetic technique is warranted and useful. For example, in his meditative writings, in most of his prayers, in his mystical treatise The Hidden Words, in the Surih of the Temple, and in various other works, Baha’u’llah bequeathed a vast storehouse of figurative imagery and symbols, the interpretation of which challenge even the most astute minds. In fact, in describing those utterances in which “the literal meaning, as generally understood by the people, is not what hath been intended,” Baha’u’llah wrote:
Thus it is recorded: “Every knowledge hath seventy meanings, of which one only is known amongst the people. And when the Qa’im shall arise, He shall reveal unto men all that which remaineth.” He also saith: “We speak one word, and by it we intend one and seventy meanings; each one of these meanings we can explain.” – Baha’u’llah, The Book of Certitude, p. 255.
However, the fact that the prophet can explain all the meanings does not mean he will. Like Christ with his parables, Baha’u’llah most often does not explicate his own imagery, but tests our sincerity and determination to think for ourselves by forcing us to extract the inner essence of his teachings.
Obviously it would be pretentious and, for our purposes here, unnecessary to attempt any sort of general survey of Baha’u’llah’s utilization of imagery in his revealed writings. His uses are as varied as the styles and purposes of his hundreds of tablets and books. But, in the next few essays in this series, we’ll look at a few examples of this technique, which illustrate the importance of understanding the metaphorical process when we are studying the writings of Baha’u’llah.