The Play of Sultan Salim
By John Taylor; 2008 June 28, 05 Rahmat, 165 BE
A few weeks ago a speaker at Mrs. Javid's fireside, Foruzandeh Masrour, had the challenge of introducing the Baha'i Faith to several people who knew little English and next to nothing not only about the Faith but about religion as well. I thought she made a brilliant choice when she introduced both religion and Baha'i at the same time by giving central attention to one of the two known formative experiences of Baha'u'llah's childhood, the Play of Sultan Salim. This incident changed the direction of the young Mirza Husain Ali's life from one of refined pleasure to a religious life of sacrifice. The about-face took place after an entertainment that took place at a brother's wedding -- as Foruzandeh pointed out, upper-class Persian weddings of that day were like Polish weddings of today, they lasted for several days and had entertainment not just for adults (as often is the case in Western celebrations) but for children as well.
The entertainment consisted of a miniature puppet play going over a series of incidents in the Turkish court, leading up to a full-scale war. It was intended to be vastly impressive on a small scale, which heightened the irony of the wonderful grandeur of a rival court -- any satire of the equally vast retinue and pomp in the Shah's court would hardly have been politically correct in Teheran. While most adults would have understood it as a political send-up, Mirza Husain Ali and most children, I think, would catch the real, existential meaning, the lesson that this life on earth, impressive as it is, will soon be folded up and put away forever. Like a mirage in the desert, everything we value will soon be gone without trace.
I recalled writing about this play several years ago, but the details escaped me. Later I went back over my older material and found that I wrote about it just after 9-11, on
The Sultan Salim Play in the Lawh-i-Ra'is
The latest translation of the puppet play anecdote comes from the Lawh-i-Ra'is, Summons of the Lord of Hosts (para 3.10-3.17, pp. 165-168) According to the David Ruhe biography of Baha'u'llah, "Robe of Light," the Tablet that contains this anecdote was written to Ali Pasha. Ali Pasha was the Sultan's prime minister -- and he had the vehemently anti-Baha'i Persian ambassador as a close friend. This ambassador once took a tantrum, and refused to speak to Ali Pasha for seven days, which made Ali Pasha feel obliged to order the continued banishment of Baha'u'llah from Baghdad. (David Ruhe, Robe of Light, The Persian Years of the Supreme Prophet, Baha'u'llah, 1817-1853, pp. 29-30) Baha'u'llah writes in this Tablet:
Have ye fondly imagined your glory to be imperishable and your dominion to be everlasting? Nay, by Him Who is the All-Merciful! Neither will your glory last, nor will Mine abasement endure. Such abasement, in the estimation of a true man, is the pride of every glory.
When I was still a child and had not yet attained the age of maturity, My father made arrangements in Tihran for the marriage of one of My older brothers, and as is customary in that city, the festivities lasted for seven days and seven nights. On the last day it was announced that the play "Shah Sultan Salim" would be presented.
A large number of princes, dignitaries, and notables of the capital gathered for the occasion. I was sitting in one of the upper rooms of the building and observing the scene. Presently a tent was pitched in the courtyard, and before long some small human-like figures, each appearing to be no more than about a hand's span in height, were seen to emerge from it and raise the call:
"His Majesty is coming! Arrange the seats at once!"
Other figures then came forth, some of whom were seen to be engaged in sweeping, others in sprinkling water, and thereafter another, who was announced as the chief town crier, raised his call and bade the people assemble for an audience with the king. Next, several groups of figures made their appearance and took their places, the first attired in hats and sashes after the Persian fashion, the second wielding battleaxes, and the third comprising a number of footmen and executioners carrying bastinados. Finally there appeared, arrayed in regal majesty and crowned with a royal diadem, a kingly figure, bearing himself with the utmost haughtiness and grandeur, at turns advancing and pausing in his progress, who proceeded with great solemnity, poise and dignity to seat himself upon his throne.
At that moment a volley of shots was fired, a fanfare of trumpets was sounded, and king and tent were enveloped in a pall of smoke. When it had cleared, the king, ensconced upon his throne, was seen surrounded by a suite of ministers, princes, and dignitaries of state who, having taken their places, were standing at attention in his presence. A captured thief was then brought before the king, who gave the order that the offender should be beheaded. Without a moment's delay the chief executioner cut off the thief's head, whence a blood-like liquid came forth. After this the king held audience with his court, during which intelligence was received that a rebellion had broken out on a certain frontier. Thereupon the king reviewed his troops and dispatched several regiments supported by artillery to quell the uprising. A few moments later cannons were heard booming from behind the tent, and it was announced that a battle had been engaged.
This Youth regarded the scene with great amazement. When the royal audience was ended, the curtain was drawn, and, after some twenty minutes, a man emerged from behind the tent carrying a box under his arm.
"What is this box," I asked him, "and what was the nature of this display?"
"All this lavish display and these elaborate devices," he replied, "the king, the princes, and the ministers, their pomp and glory, their might and power, everything you saw, are now contained within this box."
I swear by My Lord Who, through a single word of His Mouth, hath brought into being all created things! Ever since that day, all the trappings of the world have seemed in the eyes of this Youth akin to that same spectacle. They have never been, nor will they ever be, of any weight and consequence, be it to the extent of a grain of mustard seed. How greatly I marveled that men should pride themselves upon such vanities, whilst those possessed of insight, ere they witness any evidence of human glory, perceive with certainty the 168 inevitability of its waning. "Never have I looked upon any thing save that I have seen extinction before it; and God, verily, is a sufficient witness!"
It behoveth everyone to traverse this brief span of life with sincerity and fairness. Should one fail to attain unto the recognition of Him Who is the Eternal Truth, let him at least conduct himself with reason and justice. Erelong these outward trappings, these visible treasures, these earthly vanities, these arrayed armies, these adorned vestures, these proud and overweening souls, all shall pass into the confines of the grave, as though into that box. In the eyes of those possessed of insight, all this conflict, contention and vainglory hath ever been, and will ever be, like unto the play and pastimes of children. Take heed, and be not of them that see and yet deny.
The Guardian Defines the Religion that came out of this play
The problem with which you are faced is one which concerns and seriously puzzles many of our present-day youth. How to attain spirituality is, indeed, a question to which every young man and woman must sooner or later try to find a satisfactory answer. It is precisely because no such satisfactory reply has been given or found, that modern youth finds itself bewildered, and is being consequently carried away by the materialistic forces that are so powerfully undermining the foundation of man's moral and spiritual life.
Indeed, the chief reason for the evils now rampant in society is a lack of spirituality. The materialistic civilization of our age has so much absorbed the energy and interest of mankind, that people in general no longer feel the necessity of raising themselves above the forces and conditions of their daily material existence. There is not sufficient demand for things that we should call spiritual to differentiate them from the needs and requirements of our physical existence. The universal crisis affecting mankind is, therefore, essentially spiritual in its causes. The spirit of the age, taken on the whole, is irreligious. Man's outlook upon life is too crude and materialistic to enable him to elevate himself into the higher realms of the spirit.
It is this condition, so sadly morbid, into which society has fallen, that religion seeks to improve and transform. For the core of religious faith is that mystic feeling that unites man with God. This state of spiritual communion can be brought about and maintained by means of meditation and prayer. And this is the reason why Baha'u'llah has so much stressed the importance of worship. It is not sufficient for a believer to merely accept and observe the teachings. He should, in addition, cultivate the sense of spirituality, which he can acquire chiefly by the means of prayer. The Baha'i Faith, like all other Divine religions, is thus fundamentally mystic in character. Its chief goal is the development of the individual and society, through the acquisition of spiritual virtues and powers. It is the soul of man that has first to be fed. And this spiritual nourishment prayer can best provide. Laws and institutions, as viewed by Baha'u'llah, can become really effective only when our inner spiritual life has been perfected and transformed.
Otherwise religion will degenerate into a mere organization, and become a dead thing.
The believers, particularly the young ones, should therefore fully realize the necessity of praying. For prayer is absolutely indispensable to their inner spiritual development, and this, already stated, is the very foundation and purpose of the Religion of God.
(Shoghi Effendi, 8 December 1935 to an individual believer, published in "Baha'i News" 102 (August 1936), p. 3)