Shoghi Effendi tells us that The Seven Valleys is Baha’u’llah’s greatest mystical work, “which He wrote in answer to the questions of Shaykh Muhyi’d-Din, the Qadi [judge] of Khaniqayn, in which He describes the seven stages which the soul of the seeker must needs traverse ere it can attain the object of its existence.”1 A testament to the power of Baha’u’llah’s revealed words are their profound impact and effect – even if you are reading His words in a translated language and have no knowledge of its historical or literary context. However, I thought I would write a bit about the historical and literary context of The Seven Valleys so that I could better understand what makes it Baha’u’llah’s greatest mystical work.
The Seven Valleys was revealed in Persian in response to the questions of Shaykh Mahyi’d-Din, an educated student of Sufi philosophy who was an admirer of Baha’u’llah and who wrote to Him with some questions in mystical terms. In order to help Shaykh Mahyi’d-Din understand the truth of His words, Baha’u’llah replied using similar Sufi terminology (Sufism is a mystical school of Islamic thought that believes a person can have a direct experience with God). In the second volume of The Revelation of Baha’u’llah, Adib Taherzadeh says that The Seven Valleys were
written before His Declaration in the idiom of the people concerned. In His divine wisdom, Baha’u’llah used the Sufi terminology current at the time, so that the questioner might comprehend. […] He also affirms that anyone, who in this day has turned to Him and truly recognized His station, has indeed attained all seven of the stages mentioned in that book.2
It’s not just the language used that would have been familiar to Shaykh Mahyi’d-Ding, but also the form of the work. The Seven Valleys follows, but is not identical to, a pre-existing well-known poem – it is written in a similar style and structure to Attar’s “The Conference of the Birds”. The seven valleys mentioned – the valleys of search, love, knowledge, unity, contentment, wonderment, and true poverty and absolute nothingness – are similar to the stages in Attar’s work, and Attar was an eminent Sufi. Sufis reading The Seven Valleys would have immediately recognized its form and been familiar with the narrative of traveling through seven different valleys in order to attain truth.
I think it’s important to know that The Seven Valleys was revealed in the 1850’s, prior to Baha’u’llah’s declaration. Baha’u’llah revealed this work after His return to Baghdad from the mountains near Sulaymaniyyih.3 By using familiar language and a familiar form, Baha’u’llah gently helped His inquirer understand the Truth of His Revelation; His literary choices helped prepare His readers for His declaration. Baha’u’llah writes,
How strange that while the Beloved is visible as the sun, yet the heedless still hunt after tinsel and base metal. Yea, the intensity of His revelation hath covered Him, and the fullness of His shining forth hath hidden Him.4
In the introduction to this work, Robert Gulick Jr. writes:
The subject [of The Seven Valleys] is essentially timeless and placeless, the inner verities of religion. The spiritual realities are the same in all the established religions, and they constitute the foundation of faith. This is the purport of the declaration of Baha’u’llah concerning His Faith: “This is the changeless Faith of God, eternal in the past, eternal in the future.”5
The Seven Valleys also makes a clear distinction between the Sufi ideal that one can experience God directly, and the Baha’i principle that God can only be known through His Manifestations. Baha’u’llah states:
Yea, these mentionings that have been made of the grades of knowledge relate to the knowledge of the Manifestations of that Sun of Reality, which casteth Its light upon the Mirrors.6
Before I studied The Seven Valleys, I mistakenly and arrogantly thought the text didn’t apply to me because I was already a Baha’i – in a silly and flippant manner, I thought I had already attained the truth and that my quest was over. What I learned is that the process of attaining the truth is ongoing, it’s the process of spiritual growth, and that it never ends! While The Seven Valleys is a narrative with a sequential structure and there are various states one must pass through in order to understand the truth, Baha’u’llah states that you can “cross these seven stages in seven steps, nay rather in seven breaths, nay rather in a single breath.”7. In the beginning of the text, He also says:
… without patience the wayfarer on this journey will reach nowhere and attain no goal. Nor should he be downhearted; if he strive for a hundred thousand years and yet fail to behold the beauty of the Friend, he should not falter.8
We are promised, however, with the words of an Arabian proverb that “whoso seeketh out a thing with zeal shall find it.”9
What of The Four Valleys? This text has a different structure – instead of a sequential journey, it describes four different states of being – but the truth of the text is the same as The Seven Valleys.
If you are thinking of studying this wonderful work, you can read it in its entirety online at the Baha’i Reference Library. You might find it useful to consult Chapter 8 in Volume I of The Revelation of Baha’u’llah by Adib Taherzadeh (which can be found online through Study the Faith) or refer to Julio Savi’s study guide entitled Towards the Summit of Reality: An Introduction to Baha’u’llah’s Seven Valleys and Four Valleys (which can be purchased here).