The Ocean of His Words: A Reader’s Guide to the Art of Bahá’u’lláh (revised edition)

I began teaching literature at the university level in 1963. With the publication of The Ocean of His Words in 1997, I had been teaching almost thirty-five years. And while I had already written several books on the Bahá’í Faith or on subjects related to its teachings, I decided that it might be useful for me as a professor of literature to demonstrate for the general public the value of employing the tools of critical literary analysis to the works of Bahá’u’lláh, a process with which I had been helping graduate students to unlock the mysteries of English literature, from Beowulf, to Shakespeare, to Milton, to Eliot.

While to some this concept might have seemed a bit odd or inappropriate—to expect ordinary readers to acquire in one book those capacities I was trying to instill in students working at a graduate level. But the fact is that it had long since become my opinion that any tools of literary analysis were, if explained plainly and well, accessible and useful for anyone, regardless of their specific background or level of education. 

The feedback I received after the book was published seemed to confirm my theory, and some of the workshops I did at Bahá’í summer schools and permanent schools based on exercising these same tools were equally well received.  

After first explaining how and why the Manifestations employ indirect and sometimes veiled artistic techniques in Their revealed words, I proceeded to devote the succeeding chapters to one of the more useful tools I would discuss when introducing a class to the study of belletristic literature: narrative point of view, historical context, genre and style, figurative imagery, subject in relation to structure, and finally, a the value of an explication de texte (a close reading of text). 

While it is needless here to explain how I describe and demonstrate each of these tools of literary analysis, suffice it to say that in explaining the usefulness of each of these, I exemplify them in action by applying them to those works of Bahá’u’lláh that I felt particularly appropriate to a given literary device. For example, I showed how Bahá’u’lláh’s use of variable point of view plays an important role in understanding the prayers; how historical context is extremely necessary to appreciate the meaning of a work like the Tablet of the Holy Mariner; how many of Bahá’u’lláh’s works can be usefully understood as utilizing a particular genre in literature, whether the doctrinal treatise that is the Kitáb-i-Íqán or the epistolary style of Bahá’u’lláh’s letters to the kings and rulers; how understanding the mechanics of symbols and images can help the reader discern the concealed meaning in such works as the Persian Hidden Words or many of Bahá’u’lláh beauteous prayers; how learning to determine the structure organizing the train of thought in a work like the Tablet of Wisdom or The Book of Certitude can make apparent what might otherwise be difficult to follow; and, finally, how assembling of all these tools to undertake a close reading of texts can elucidate for the reader an abstruse work like the Tablet of Ahmad or The Seven Valleys.

To this day, I find that readers of the works of Bahá’u’lláh benefit from these exercises—some of which are similar to some of those included in the Ruhi Institute courses—because they demonstrate how to unlock the meaning that the ordinary reader might otherwise find difficult to discover. For me, one of the most powerful statements by Bahá’u’lláh regarding the benefit of utilizing these tools of analysis is His observation that “in every age, the reading of the scriptures and holy books is for no other purpose except to enable the reader to apprehend their meaning and unravel their innermost mysteries. Otherwise reading, without understanding, is of no abiding profit unto man” (Kitáb-i-Íqán 172, italics added). 

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