John Taylor, 23 December, 2022
Moses and the Green Knight, Julio Savi's explanation of Baha'u'llah's Interpretation
John Taylor, 23 December, 2022
We discussed the Green Knight, or Khidr, mentioned in the Qur'an in our study class on Baha'u'llah's Tablet of Haykal. Here are some passages from Julio Savi's book on the Seven Valleys of Baha'u'llah, "Towards the Summit of Reality; An Introduction to the Study of the Seven Valleys and Four Valleys of Baha'u'llah," pp. 184-190
The story of Moses is related in Sura 28, the Sura of the Story, as well as in many others. Lambden observes ('Sinaitic Mysteries' 74) that 'Moses is more frequently mentioned in the Qur'an (196 times) than any one of the other messengers or prophets of God'. The Qur'an refers to the same episodes which are mentioned in the Bible (see Exod. 2-14). Commentators and mystics perused these verses and worked out several allegorical explanations, well-known to Sufi readers. While reading them and their interpretations, we should remember that in the Muslim world Moses is much more than the patriarch who rescued the Jews from their Egyptian captivity. He is a Perfect Man, a Manifestation of God's Names and Attributes, a Revealer of the Divine Word, a Messenger of God upon earth.
Sufis refer to a number of fundamental recurrent themes from the story of Moses. Some of these may also be found in the two epistles by Bahá'u'lláh: the white hand, the rod, the announcement 'Thou shalt not see Me' (7:139). Bahá'u'lláh also refers to Moses' Sinaitic experience as spiritual transformation and submission to God.
Moses' white hand (yad-i-bayḍá)
"He stretcheth out the hand of truth (dast-i-haqq) from the sleeve of the Absolute (jayb-i-mutlaq). (SV18; HV109)
“the wayfarer who journeyeth unto God, unto the Crimson Pillar in the snow-white path (manhaju'l-bayda).” (FV58, CV150)
“Wherefore, put thy hand (yad) into thy bosom (jayb), then stretch it forth with power, and behold, thou shalt find it a light unto all the world.” (Qur'an 20:23 and Tradition, quoted in FV62, CV153)
These sentences and metaphors can be more easily understood in the light of the Qur'anic episode to which they refer. As in the Bible (Exod. 4:2-9), the Qur'an relates that, when God assigned to Moses the mission of rescuing the Jews from their Egyptian captivity, He vouchsafed upon Him a thaumaturgic power as a proof of His divine mission.
"... Now, what is that in thy right hand, O Moses?'
Said he, 'It is my staff on which I lean, and with which I beat down leaves for my sheep, and I have other uses for it.'
He said, 'Cast it down, O Moses!'
So he cast it down, and lo! it became a serpent that ran along.
Savi, p. 185
He said, 'Lay hold on it, and fear not: to its former state will we restore it.' Now place thy right hand (yad) to thy arm-pit: it shall come forth white (bayḍá), but unhurt:- another sign! -
That We may shew thee the greatest of our signs
Go to Pharaoh, for he hath burst all bounds.' (20:17-24)
Rúmí writes of this episode:
“The hand of Moses was spreading from his bosom a radiance that surpassed the moon in the sky, Saying (implicitly),
'That which thou wert seeking from the terrible celestial sphere hath uprisen, O Moses, from thy own bosom,
In order that thou mayst know that the lofty heavens are the reflection of the perceptive (rational) faculties of Man.'” (M6:1933-35)
In other words, the hand of Moses became white and shining because His heart (or bosom) had been cleansed and thus could reflect, as a perfect mirror, the light of God.
(note 6: This episode is commented upon by Bausani (Religion in Iran 278): 'The "white hand" is always mentioned in Arabic - the sacred Qur'anic language - and is one of the typical stock images in this lyric poetry that partly substitute our mythological images, just as the great posters in the mosques (on which sacred Arabic names and words are written) replace our figurative icons.)
In the Kitáb-i-ĺqán Bahá'u'lláh describes Moses thus:
“Armed with the rod of celestial dominion, adorned with the white hand of divine knowledge, and proceeding from the Párán of the love of God, and wielding the serpent of power and everlasting majesty, He shone forth from the Sinai of light upon the world.” (KI 11, para. 12)
Bahá'u'lláh refers to Himself the symbols of Moses' white hand and rod. He writes: ... This is Mine hand which God hath turned white for all the worlds to behold. This is My staff; were We to cast it down, it would, of a truth, swallow up all created things" (quoted in GPB 169).
The meaning ascribed to this theme in the Bahá'í Writings seems quite similar to the meaning ascribed to it by the Sufis. The white hand of Moses is His divine knowledge, often defined by Sufis as white magic, which is bound to prevail over the black magic of Sámirí, the sorcerer who instigated the Jews to forge the golden calf. ("Straightness is the quality of Moses' staff; the kinks are the staves of the sorcerers" -Rumi, Signs, p. 9) The former is, in a sense, the capacity of preserving the integrity of intellect so that the spiritual truth of Revelation may be understood through its instrumentality; the latter is the enslavement of the intellect to the concupiscible soul, through which the Revelation is rejected. Nevertheless, as Moses prevailed over Sámirí, so a wholesome intellect will also prevail over an enslaved one.
According to Lambden, Moses' 'snow-white "hand" symbolizes the Divine Power which he manifested from the interior "fold" or "bosom" [jayb] of the "cloak" of his nobility' ('Sinaitic Mysteries' 112). He observes that the same symbol is used in the Hidden Words (Arabic 60):
"O Son of Man! Put thy hand into My bosom, that I may rise above thee, radiant and resplendent."
And he remarks (120):
"Bahá'u'lláh exhorts the 'Son of Man' (human beings collectively) to mystically repeat the miracle of Moses' snow-white hand. By putting his 'hand' into the divine 'bosom' (jayb), man may experience the radiant epiphany of God from his own bosom.
'Thou shalt not see Me'
"Veiled from this was Moses
Though all strength and light;
Then thou who hast no wings at all
Attempt not flight." (M1:237, quoted in SV17)
(note 8: Nicholson gives the following translation: 'The imagination of Moses, notwithstanding his (spiritual) illumination and excellence, was screened from (the comprehension of) that (act of Khadir). Do not thou fly without wings.' The preceding verse is quoted in SV26: 'If Khidr did wreck the vessel on the sea, Yet in this wrong there are a thousand rights.")
These verses are inspired by an episode described in the Qur'an (7:139-40):
"And when Moses came at our set time and his Lord spake with him, he said, 'O Lord, shew thyself to me, that I may look upon thee.' He said, 'Thou shalt not see Me; but look towards the mount, and if it abide firm in its place, then shalt thou see Me.' And when God manifested Himself to the mountain he turned it to dust! and Moses fell in a swoon.
And when he came to himself, he said, 'Glory be to thee! To thee do I turn in penitence, and I am the first of them that believe.'"
Bausani remarks: 'This beautiful passage has been often cited by mystics as an example of the Saint who yearns to behold God and by theologians as a proof that the efforts of mystics are vain' ('Introduzione e commento' 552n143). Elsewhere he observes that 'the whole of Persian mystic lyrical poetry is a rebellion against the Qur'anic lan tarānī ("Thou shalt not see me . . ."), an aesthetic realization of the enjoyment of the vision of God in the Idol-Friend' ('Letteratura' 214). Austin says (250) that Ibn al-'Arabí describes Moses as representing 'human commitment and conformity to divine Law, but without the personal power to enforce it'.
Savi, p. 187
In the Seven Valleys, Bahá'u'lláh is seemingly inviting His correspondent to seek the guidance of the Manifestation of God so that he may achieve his long- cherished spiritual goal. If Moses, from His highest station, could not behold God, how can a mere man such as he behold Him! Once again the concept is here emphasized that God in His Essence is absolutely transcendent and unknowable and that human beings must follow the guidance of His Manifestation, the only way open to them in attaining unto such a knowledge of their Creator as is suited to their capacities.
The Sinaitic experience: Spiritual transformation
"When the qualities of the Ancient of Days stood revealed,
The qualities of earthly things did Moses burn away. (M3:1391, quoted in SV36)
(note 9: Nicholson gives the following translation: "When the Attributes of the Eternal have shone forth, then the mantle of temporality is burned.")
This couplet refers to Qur'án 7:139, which Lambden explains in the light of the ideas of Suhravardí. Moses is considered in the Muslim world as 'being archetypal of the advanced mystic'. His Sinaitic experience is thus seen as the prototype of God's revelation (tajalli) to the mystic. Moses' swoon on the occasion of that revelation
“is related to the complete nullification or annihilation (fana') of the qualities of existence, and the attaining of that abiding permanency (baqa') at which th e spiritual being beholds the essence (dhat) of the Eternal God through His Light.”
Mount Sinai is in its turn the symbol of 'the human aspect (nafs) of his existence" (Lambden, "Sinaitic Mysteries' 84).
Bahá'u'lláh may be alluding in this verse to that spiritual condition which all mystics call 'second birth (valádat)' ('Abdu'l-Bahá, SAQ 224, ch.60; Mufávadát 158; see above, pp.70-71, and below, pp. 368, 418).
(note 10: Interestingly, the Persian-Arabic word valádat used by 'Abdu'l-Bahá to denote the 'second birth' comes from walada, "she... brought forth a child, or young one... He begot a child, a young one' (Lane: wid), from which also comes walad, 'a child, son, daughter, youngling, or young one' (Lane: wld, walad). And walad is almost synonymous of tifl, "young one of tender age' (Lane: tfi, fourth stem), the word used by al-Jilání to define his 'babe [tiflu l-ma'ání, lit. child of the spiritual concepts]' (al-Jilání, Secret 11).
A man is born for the first time in the world of nature at the time of his physical birth. He is born for the second time, from the physical to the spiritual world, when he learns how to express the virtues of his soul, which are qualities of the divine world, through his body born in the world of nature. At that time the 'qualities of earthly things' are so to say burnt away and the qualities of the Ancient of Days', i.e. virtues, stand revealed in their stead.
In these words He may also be alluding to the dual station – divine and human — of the Manifestation of God, which He also explains in later Writings as follows:
STORIES AND LEGENDS, p. 186
"The first station, which is related to His innermost reality, representeth Him as One Whose voice is the voice of God Himself. To this testifieth the tradition: 'Manifold station, exemplified by the following verses: 'I am but a man like you' (Qur'an 41:5). except that I am that I am, and He is that He is'.... The second station is the human 'Say, praise be to my Lord! Am I more than a man, an apostle?' (Qur'an 17:95). (Gleanings 66-7, XXVII, para.4)
The Sinaitic experience: Submission to God
"Glory be to Thee! To Thee do I turn in penitence, and I am the first of them that believe." (Qur'an 7:140, quoted in FV64)
These are the words reported by the Qur'an as having been said by Moses after He fainted on Mount Sinai when God showed Himself to him at His request. In the Four Valleys there is an implicit parallel between the words 'When I entrusted this message of love to My pen, it refused the burden, and it swooned away (munşa'igan)' (FV64, CV156) and the Qur'anic words to which the quoted verse refers: 'And when God manifested Himself to the mountain he turned it to dust! And Moses fell in a swoon (şa'igan)' (7:139). This parallel makes the quotation, used to convey the idea of Bahá'u'lláh's deep love for the Shaykh, more pertinent and elegant.
The story of Khidr, also called Khadir, is part of the story of Moses in the Qur'an. The Qur'an says that while Moses was trying to reach 'the confluence of the two seas' (18:59) He met a youth described as 'one of our servants to whom we had vouchsafed our mercy, and whom We had instructed with our knowledge' (18:64).
Moses wanted to learn from him, and asked permission to follow him. The youth agreed, on condition that Moses would be patient and ask no questions, whatever he might do. But during their long journey the youth performed a number of actions which seemed so absurd that Moses could not restrain himself from questioning the reasons. The youth made a hole in the ship they were sailing in, so that it sank; then he killed a lad, with no obvious motive, and finally he repaired 'a wall that was about to fall' without requiring any reward (18:65, 70, 73, 76). Each time Moses asked him the reason for his action but received no answer until the third time. Now the youth demonstrated the hidden knowledge that explained his actions, resulting in beneficial outcomes in the long run (see Qur'an 18:79-81). He then abandoned Moses to himself.
Many legends flourished upon this primal Qur'anic nucleus. The mysterious youth was called Khidr or Khadir (lit. green or glaucous), because he always wore something green, or because he became green when he immersed himself in the
Savi, pp. 189
Water of Life. According to the legends, he succeeded in reaching the inaccessible Water of Life, a green fountain in the Land of Darkness near the meeting place of the two oceans (see Qur'an 18:60-1), and drank it, thus becoming immortal and conquering the role of guardian of that priceless liquid. The legend of Khidr as a green man may have an antecedent in the giant Humbaba, guardian of the cedar forests of Lebanon in the Mesopotamian myth of Gilgamesh (early second millennium BC). It may have epigones in the legend of the Green Knight defeated by the brothers Orson and Valentine at the court of King Peppin in France. Initially the Green Knight of this legend is an evil figure and worships a god named Muhammad, but after his defeat he converts to Christianity and becomes a benevolent figure. After the 11th century the Green Man became a familiar figure in the sculpture of churches. Last but not least, a Green Knight is the most important feature of the Arthurian 14th-century legend of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.
Those legends were afterward given esoteric meanings by mystics. Khidr was considered to be a fifth-generation descendant of Noah. He was interpreted either as 'Moses' prophet-initiator' (Corbin, History 101), or as 'the prophet possessing an unusually long life who can initiate men into the Divine Mysteries and corresponds in many ways to Enoch in the Judaeo-Christian tradition (Gen. 5:8-24)' (Nasr, Sufi Essays 58). Khidr has been 'often referred to as "the Jew" and he has been equated in legend with such figures as St George and Elijah' (Shah, The Way 161). Since in this legend, although Moses is a great prophet Himself, He plays the part of the 'disciple' of an even greater Master' (Bausani, Islam 81), some orthodox interpreters maintained this Moses to be 'a Manaxes, a descendant of Jacob, and thus a different person from Moses, the Prophet' (Bausani, 'Introduzione e commento' 588n60). A number of mystics thought that Khidr 'is not someone distinct from "the seeker of the Truth; but that seeker's second self'"' ... Man's "inner voice", a pure voice unsullied by mundane and carnal passions' (Stepaniants, Sufi Wisdom 52, 5). Austin says (250) that in Ibn al-'Arabi's Bezels of Wisdom the relation between Moses and al-Khidr is
"an illustration of the perennial tension between the Sacred Law, represented by Moses and expressing the divine Wish, and the mystic or esoteric knowledge of the gnosis that perceives not only the necessity for and validity of the Law, but also the inescapable validity and necessity of those aspects of cosmic becoming that elude the Law, as also the synthesis of both in the Oneness of Being.”
According to the mystics, the whole story aims at teaching patience and trust in the inscrutable designs of God, whose meaning is often wholly unknown to us and beyond the reach of our limited minds.
In the Bahá'í Writings, Khidr is not intended as a real person but as a metaphor for the spiritual reality of Moses (see 'Abdu'l-Bahá, Tablet to Núshabádí 42). Bahá'u'lláh explains in one of His Tablets that Moses was taught by the divine effulgences of the world of Revelation (tajalliyyát amriyyah) and that these Effulgences are called in the Book of God (Kitáb-i-Ilahi) by the name of Khidr
Savi, p. 190
(see Amr va Khalq 2:201). Bahá'u'lláh also mentions Khidr in His Mathnaviy-i-Mubarak, the longest poem He composed. In this poem He writes:
You are, and your corrupted soul... darkness
God's revelation is your Water of Life
Just pass beyond the darkness of your self;
you'll quaff, always refreshed, the wine of life
Then step into the shade of Soul's own Khezr
that from the realms of darkness you'll be freed
The Khezr of old drank deep, was freed from death
while this new Khezr grants countless founts of life
To all He has bestowed the water of life
To the Sole King, he's sacrificed his soul!
That Khezr through striving finally arrived;
This Khezr at once made fountains flow with life
That Khezr ran after traces of the fount
This Khezr is chased each step by flowing founts.
(quoted in Lewis, 'Bahá'u'lláh's Mathnaviy-i Mubarak' 131-2)
Franklin D. Lewis, the author of this provisional translation of Bahá'u'lláh's Mathnavi, remarks that 'Bahá'u'lláh here calls himself the new Khedr (ibid. 148n50). Many poets have written mystical verses alluding to the Qur'anic episode of Moses and Khidr. Among them, Rúmí expatiates upon it in his Mathnavi, whence the following verse is taken:
"If Khidr did wreck the vessel on the sea,
Yet in this wrong there are a thousand rights.”
(M1:236, quoted in SV26; see above, p.186n8 and below, p.226)