Note: My answers to these questions are my own opinions, since none of them are known to be answered explicitly in the Bahá’í Writings. I will try to give my reasons for the opinions that I have, but if they do not “work” for you, or if they detract from your enjoyment of the Seven Valleys, then by definition then they are worthless!
Why are there seven valleys and not five or eight?
Seven is a rather significant number in religious history. The Bible is filled with examples involving the number seven. However, it is not clear that “seven” in relation to the Seven Valleys is a fixed and rigid number. It may simply have been a convenient choice for Bahá’u’lláh in responding to the Sufi who questioned Him.
First, the original “seven valleys” can be found at the end of Mantiqu’t-Tayr (Conference of the Birds), a book by the Sufi poet Farídu’d-Dín `Attár. Because the Sufi who questioned Bahá’u’lláh was writing about this text, it was only natural for Him to response using a similar framework.
Second, in the beginning of Bahá’u’lláh’s Seven Valleys, he never says that there are exactly seven. The wording he uses always refers to the beliefs of others:
The stages that mark the wayfarer’s journey from the abode of dust to the heavenly homeland are said to be seven. Some have called these Seven Valleys, and others, Seven Cities. And they say that until the wayfarer taketh leave of self, and traverseth these stages, he shall never reach to the ocean of nearness and union, nor drink of the peerless wine.
Third, in an Arabic text named Javáhiru’l-Asrár (Gems of the Mysteries), Bahá’u’lláh also writes about seven valleys, but He skips two of them, and gives a description of two further valleys beyond the seven that occur in the Persian text. He even mentions this fact, and that He did this in the interests of time:
… we were denied the opportunity and the necessary leisure by the traveler who came on your behalf. He was in great haste and felt urgently that he must be on his way. For this reason, we have limited our discourse and contented ourselves with less than a complete description of the stages along the path. We have not detailed these as was fitting and necessary. Rather, we have altogether neglected to mention several cities and stages of the utmost importance. The impatience of your messenger was so great that we even omitted any reference to the two exalted stages of self-surrender and contentment.
These “two exalted stages”, if one compares the titles of the Valleys in that text with those in the Persian Seven Valleys, would seem to relate to the Valleys of Knowledge and Contentment. Here si the sequence that He gives in the Arabic text:
- Love and allurement
- Divine Unity
- Unending, Eternal life
- The City that Has No Name
By merging these two texts, then, we find nine stages depicted in total, and even these are not complete according to Him.
In conclusion, the use of “seven” valleys, as opposed to a greater number, appears dependent on the conditions in which the Seven Valleys was revealed, and therefore does not seem to have any essential importance.
Why does the Seven Valleys read the way it does?
The Manifestations of God always speak in terms relative to human understanding. As Bahá’u’lláh mentions in the Hidden Words:
O Son of Beauty! By My spirit and by My favor! By My mercy and by My beauty! All that I have revealed unto thee with the tongue of power, and have written for thee with the pen of might, hath been in accordance with thy capacity and understanding, not with My state and the melody of My voice.
If one reads the original Sufi text upon which the Seven Valleys was based (see above), he will find many of the same stories told, in some cases even exactly as Bahá’u’lláh retells them. There are even several stories which Bahá’u’lláh does not relate, and vice-versa.
It is almost as though Bahá’u’lláh is using
Attár's framework as a base -- in deference to the limitations of the Sufi questioner -- and using ti as a way to fulfill and perfect whatAttár was trying to say. In this way, we see the Divine Mind expressing itself in a particular language, suited to a specialized system of understanding, yet revealing the same eternal truths that can be found in all Holy Scriptures.
The Sufis, as a group, have always sought a more direct, experiential relationship with God, and the Seven Valleys explains how this is both a legitimate and worthwhile goal given the proper orientation to God and His Manifestations.
Are the Seven Valleys a progression, to be passed through one at a
It is my belief that the Seven Valleys is not only a sequential progression of the wayfarer’s understanding, but that passing through each valley has profound consequences:
- The behavior of the seeker is radically altered
- The world they see around them is fundamentally different from what others see
- The understanding they gain cannot be undone or lost
To see why this is so, it is necessary to discuss what is meant by understanding and knowledge.
In Ancient Greece, where philosophy was born, men debated a great deal about knowledge and wisdom, and what the signs were of each. It was understood that there are two fundamentally different orientations to the world: opinion and knowledge.
Opinion is something one holds in the mind, and thus is subject to change. It can be divorced from one’s actions, or changed in its form to suit the speaker. Modern language calls this “head knowledge”. Opinions can be forgotten, or substituted with a different understanding at different times. One can even hold several opinions about the same subject, and select between them as he deems appropriate.
Knowledge is the opposite of these things. Knowledge is not held in the mind, since it is a universal fact. It saturates you, since it is the foundation of everything around you. It cannot be divorced from one’s actions; in fact, when one truly knows something, he cannot act contrary to that knowledge, unless at some level he desires the consequences of doing so. Modern language calls this understanding, or insight or wisdom, implying an alteration of the individual himself. Knowledge cannot be forgotten, or substituted. Also, one cannot hold several different kinds of knowledge about the same subject. Knowledge, like truth, is one. If you achieve a greater understanding of a subject, this new knowledge will extend the old.
Here are a few examples: If you know that a scorpion can sting you, you will not step on one unless you want to be stung. Telling a child that scorpions can sting does not impart knowledge. Until he is stung by something, and has a true awareness of what it means to be stung, words alone will not suffice to convey knowledge. If, instead, he steps on the scorpion and is stung, from that point on he will “know” what scorpions can do. As long as one does not wish to be stung, he cannot step on scorpions.
Likewise, adults know that dimes are worth more than nickels, even though they are the same color, are lighter, and much smaller. No adult will ever trade a million dimes for a million nickels. This is because he relates not to the dime or the nickel, or their understanding of size and weight, but to their knowledge of the value of money.
It is in this sense that Plato believed a man who knew the Good could never act against it, since all men long for the Good. Therefore, only ignorance of the Good can explain evil actions. To come to know the good – to truly know it, in the Greek sense of knowledge – was thus the aim of philosophy, since to achieve that goal would result in a perfected man.
Back to the Seven Valleys: If the Valleys describe a progression of true knowledge as outlined above, then the descriptions of the wayfarer in the Valley of Knowledge, for example, depict a state of being which is more perfect than those who have not yet attained it. If after passing through that valley we reach a plane that elevates our being to a new world, to new horizons, then the nature of the Seven Valley is exactly like a spiritual Treasure Map. It is a guide book leading us to new realities, to new forms of life. It draws us closer to the Good, and transforms us as we move forward.
If, on the other hand, these stages are merely descriptive, and not fundamental, then the Seven Valleys is more like a picture book, showing realities that we might visit but never fully attain. Just as as we might be in the Valley of Contentment one day, but not the next, so nothing we ever gain is truly gained, since it can be lost the next day. What kind of understanding is so easily gained and lost? The Greeks would say that only opinions have this character, not knowledge. Opinions are a thing one holds in the mind by force of will, and rallies the emotions to their service; when one’s energy is good, success will be apparent, but when that energy is lacking, they are impossible to maintain. Knowledge, however, is not something that one sustains, but it is that which sustains the knower. In a sense, we are in so far as we know – in the spiritual sense – for otherwise we are acting, trying to make our opinions seem real against a world of continual contrast.
(This is not the place to get into what spiritual “knowledge” means, but please do not understand me to be referring to the type of knowledge that comes from study or learning. Bahá’u’lláh makes it clear that true understanding is available to all, and is dependent only on the spiritual qualities of purity and detachment. This is proven by the many illiterate Bábís and Bahá’ís in the world, who reached untold heights of spirituality, sometimes even without access to the written words of the Manifestation).
What is the Four Valleys, and how does it relate to the Seven Valleys?
There are basically three points of view regarding the Four Valleys:
They are the “four stages of the heart” mentioned at the end of the Seven Valleys.
The represent a renewed formulation of the stages of spiritual progress, and thus in a sense “supercede” the Seven Valleys.
They are an entirely different text, with a separate theme and intent.
It is my belief that the first two of these opinions are not supported by evidence, while there is grounds for suggesting that the third may be true.
First, regarding the “four stages of the heart”. These four stages are given as occurring after the seventh of the Seven Valleys, which means that the wayfarer has already achieved the station of True Poverty and Absolute Nothingness (faná). And yet, the first of the Four Valleys says, “On this plane, the self is not rejected but beloved; it is well-pleasing and not to be shunned.” Since annihilation of self is a dominant theme in the seventh Valley, this is hard to reconcile.
Furthermore, the Seven Valleys is demonstrably progressive:
And if, by the help of God, he findeth on this journey a trace of the traceless Friend, and inhaleth the fragrance of the long-lost Joseph from the heavenly messenger, he shall straightway step into the Valley of Love…
And if, confirmed by the Creator, the lover escapes from the claws of the eagle of love, he will enter the Valley of Knowledge…
After passing through the Valley of knowledge, which is the last plane of limitation, the wayfarer cometh to the Valley of Unity…
It is clear that certain conditions must be present for the wayfarer to move from one valley to the next.
In the Four Valleys, however, an entirely different scheme is presented. Rather than describing how a soul achieves a more perfect understanding of God, the Four Valleys offer four separate pathways by which souls may approach God. In fact, it is a message of tremendous joy and grace, since it opens the door of divine attainment even to those unable to abandon the self, or the domains of knowledge and love.
If the travelers seek after the goal of the Intended One (Maqsúd), this station appertaineth to the self…
If the wayfarer’s goal be the dwelling of the Praiseworthy One (Mahmúd), this is the station of primal reason
If the loving seekers wish to live within the precincts of the Attracting One (Majdhúb), no soul may dwell on this Kingly Throne save the beauty of love…
If the mystic knowers be of those who have reached to the beauty of the Beloved One (Mahbúb), this station is the apex of consciousness and the secret of divine guidance…
These, to me, clearly describe four different kinds of wayfarer, rather than the progressions of understanding of a single wayfarer. And while it does seem from comparing the two Texts that one cannot ascend through all of the Seven Valleys unless the wayfarer si one of those who seek the Beloved One (the Fourth Valley), yet the Four Valleys makes it clear that achieving the presence of God is not dependent on such a high station.
As to the second opinion, that the Four Valleys supercedes the Seven Valleys – which is the position taken by at least one Bahá’í author – this is hard to support when one considers that the Arabic rendition of these Valleys was revealed in 1860 (according to the “Leiden List”), while the Four Valleys was revealed in 1858 (according to Taherzadeh). If the Four Valleys was really meant to supercede, why would Bahá’u’lláh revert to the same format as the Seven Valleys two years later? This furthers my conjecture that the two Texts present different, though related, themes.