Introducing the Seven Valleys

The Seven Valleys was written by Bahá’u’lláh near the 1860s. In it He responds to questions from a certain Shaykh Muhyi’d-Din, who at one point was a judge in the town of Khániqih. This Shaykh was a member of the Qadiri order of Sufis, who follow the mystical teachings of Shaykh Abdu’l-Qadir Jilani and his spiritual descendants. We know only that he asked Bahá’u’lláh about the meaning of certain mystical poems, to which the Seven Valleys was Bahá’u’lláh’s response. The actual questions he asked are not known.

This text is a mystical composition of the highest order. Singled out by Shoghi Effendi, Guardian of the Bahá’í Faith, as Bahá’u’lláh’s “greatest mystical composition”1, it provides a commentary on an earlier work of Sufi poetry, The Conference of the Birds, by Farídu’d-Dín `Attár.

The style of the Seven Valleys is highly poetic, though not composed in verse. Nearly every line of the text contains rhymes, and plays on words, which are mostly lost in translation. In addition to these subtleties there are also historical and religious connotations that are equally difficult to translate. It was a common practice for Sufis to communicate by using only one or a few words to refer to Qur’anic verses, traditions, and well-known poems. The language of the Seven Valleys refers to this wealth of knowledge possessed by its recipient without stating its meaning verbosely. As a result, those reading the text who have no background in Islam or Sufism will find many of its references confusing, and some of the sentences perhaps devoid of meaning. Each word, however, is rich with shades of meaning that become apparent upon deeper examination.

The recipient of the text was a Sufi, conversant with the doctrines of Qádirí Sufism, and possessing knowledge of the previous works Bahá’u’lláh responds to. It is no wonder that an economy of words is used between two men who knew their subject matter in depth. This implied knowledge, however, is greatly lost to the Western reader – even more so when rendered in the English idiom. It would require constant footnotes to alert the reader to all the key phrases that appear in this text. In English, these phrases have no more significance than others; yet where Bahá’u’lláh uses a term like “maqaam-i-tuwhiid”, it is no less important than “resurrection” or “salvation” would be to a Christian. Specific words conjure whole bodies of context – yet this conjuration is absent in translation.

Briefly, Sufism is a branch of Islam which seeks to know of God directly, through ecstatic, mystical union.

Wouldst thou that the mind should not entrap thee? Teach it the science of the love of God!

“The purpose of the Sufi is to seek union with God through ecstasy.”2 The nature of this union differs among Sufis, some believing they become co-eternal with God’s essence (Hulúlis), others that they merely become absorbed in the immanence of His Manifestation (such as when a drop merges with the sea).

The Sufi discipline is one of purification (tazkíyyih) and remembrance (dhikr). Prayer, meditation and fasting are key. Some also practice asceticism. The purpose of these practices is to draw the interests of the self away from the world and toward God. In this way, divine love is enkindled:

“Show us the right way, that is, honor us with the love of Thine Essence, that we may be freed from turning toward ourselves and toward all else save Thee, and may become wholly Thine, and know only Thee, and see only Thee, and think of none save Thee.”

By this love all things are burned away, leading to state of self-annihilating ecstasy. This condition is increased until the lover loses all consciousness of self (faná), and becomes “nothing in God”. When this is achieved, the seeker experiences eternal union (baqá), which is an abiding, conscious experience of the Divine.

During this process, the seeker’s vision and experience of the world change dramatically. The way he perceives and understands events progressively deepens:

Thus it hath been made clear that these stages depend on the vision of the wayfarer. In every city he will behold a world, in every Valley reach a spring, in every meadow hear a song.

Sufis are guided along this journey by their joy. As they experience happiness and ecstasy, they believe themselves to be moving in the right direction. It is sometimes referred to as a science of taste (dhawq), where actions are measured by the visceral experiences they produce.

Sufism might be called the Way of Love, as expressed by one of its more famous teachers, Rabi’a:

I love Thee with two loves: love of my happiness and perfect love – to love Thee as is Thy due.

This love produces a spiritual heat, which is fanned into flame to consume the veils of self, allowing the soul to transcend its limitations and achieve union with God. Once found, the soul has attained “the next life”, and thus Sufis speak more about the distinction between self and God than they do this world and an afterlife. For them, both worlds are wrapped up in the seeker.

Bahá’u’lláh introduces many changes to this scheme. The path of Sufism, as a Way of Love and approaching God through ecstasy, can be found in Bahá’í teachings, but with these differences:

  1. Religious law (shari’ah) is never optional. They are necessary even to those who can “taste” the nearness of God. This is partly because the importance of society’s welfare is never beneath that of personal enlightenment. Both social and personal progress must be given full attention.

  2. The union with God that is achieved in baqá does not imply identification with God’s essence.

  3. The bliss of baqá is not the final stage of the mystic’s Path, but “the first gate of the heart’s citadel”.

  4. A shaykh is no longer needed to walk the Path. Just as religious laws are given full importance, the role of guidance is returned to the Revelation itself and those who hold authority. This connects the individual back to the religious community, rather than to other mystics.

  5. The role of the Manifestation is raised to the role of “God” in mystical practice. That is, the seeker’s remembrance and prayer are directed toward the Manifestation. A letter on behalf of the Guardian says: “We liken God to the Sun, which gives us all our life. So the Spirit of God reaches us through the Souls of the Manifestations. We must learn to commune with Their Souls, and this is what the Martyrs seemed to have done, and what brought them such ecstacy of joy that life became nothing. This is the true mysticism, and the secret, inner meaning of life which humanity has at present, drifted so far from.”

  6. The practices of devotion and remembrance are laid out in clearer detail so that particular differences between individuals do not become contentious, and thus the greater society is able to remain in harmony with the practices of the individual.

  7. The Baha’i concept of the unity of being (wahdat al-wujud) is clarified, since this has been a major point of conflict between Sufi orders and within Islam.

The seeker’s path is mainly one of vision, in which the veils are burnt away and the heart purified until the lights of the Divine are clearly reflected in it. This leads to a stage where the seeker “believes the being of the created world to be the same as God’s being”. However, this doctrine is identified with neither monism nor pantheism. There is a oneness of being which embraces both Oneness of Being (tuwhiid-i wujuudii) and Oneness of Manifestation (tuwhiid-i shuhuudii). As Bahá’u’lláh says of the seeker:

In this Valley [of faná], the wayfarer leaveth behind him the stages of the “oneness of Being and Manifestation” and reacheth a oneness that is sanctified above these two stations. Ecstasy alone can encompass this theme, not utterance nor argument; and whosoever hath dwelt at this stage of the journey, or caught a breath from this garden land, knoweth whereof We speak.

The Seven Valleys was written to a member of the Qadiri Sufi order. Since he was a follower of Sufism, Bahá’u’lláh revealed the Seven Valleys in that language, using those concepts, though without fixing those concepts into absolute realities. Since the Manifestation uses whatever language will best reach our understanding, it is helpful in grasping the message of the Seven Valleys to understand a bit of the Sufi scheme.

All effort begins with the self who desires to know God, and who recognizes that its remoteness is due to its own ignorance and negligence (the blaming soul). Such a soul knows only that it is thirsty, but little else.

The Sufis view the self as having four different aspects: nafs, qalb, ruh and sirr. Some also see a fifth part, the aql, or rational intellect. All Sufi “practice”, in so far as it concerns the seeker himself, is concerned with purification. The remainder of Sufi practice, which deals wholly with God, is given to remembrance and the ecstasy of contemplation. However, since this ecstasy is impeded by impurities, the self is given some degree of attention.

Each of the four parts of the self is purified by different means:

The nafs is mostly viewed as the individual self, and the lower self. It is that part which turns away from God, or desires to become a partner with Him. The nafs is developed by aligning its will with the will of God, and as this happens, the development of the other parts is made possible. The nafs is seen as progressing through up to seven stages, which `Abdu’l-Bahá expands to nine.

The maturation of the nafs along these stages happens in two phases: the momentary vision of states (haal) and the achievement of a permanent consciousness (maqaam) which cannot regress. It is these stages which the Seven Valleys describe.

The qalb, or the heart, is where the divine realities appear in the human being. The qalb can be dominating by the nafs, or it can serve to reflect the ruh (spirit).

The sirr (secret) is vewied as “the centre of inner consciousness where perceptual contact with the Divine is accomplished.”3 This may be compared with the “third eye”, or inner sight.

Some Sufism hold to two higher spiritual faculties: Khafi (the arcane), which is the bond between the ruh and God; and Akhfa (the most arcane), which is complete immersion in the Absolute.

These aspects of the self relate to the “divine worlds”:

The nafs, related to the lower and physical self, is in Nasut, the mortal world. The qalb, the seat of inspiration and the dawning place of divine attributes, is in Malakut (the realm of God’s lordship). The ruh, which emanates like a ray from the perfect Sun, is in Jabarut (the realm of God’s dominion). The sirr, which is the higher self, and khafi, the arcane, are in Lahut (the realm of the Divine). And the Akhfa is in Hahut (the realm of God’s own being).4

“So, in these four”organs” or faculties: Nafs, Qalb, Sirr and Ruh, and the purificative activities applied to them, the basic orthodox Sufi psychology is contained. The purification of elementary passionate nature (Tazkiya-I-Nafs), followed by cleansing of the spiritual heart so that it may acquire a mirror-like purity of reflection (Tazkiya-I-Qalb) and become the receptacle of God’s love (Ishq), fortified by emptying of egoic drives (Taqliyya-I-Sirr) and remembrance of God’s attributes (Dhikr), gloriously ending in illumination of the spirit (Tajjali-I-Ruh)- this is the essential Sufi spiritual journey. Other spiritual faculties, like Khafi (the arcane) and Akhfa (the most arcane) are employed in other Sufi orders like Naqshbandi, but this is beyond general basic consensus.”5

In summary: The nafs is purified by the governing of our passionate nature; then the qalb may be purified and cleansed, and become the receptacle of God’s love; then the inner eye may be opened and directed toward God; then the spirit becomes illumined and manifests Godly attributes:

  1. First, ‘Purification of the Self’ (tazkiya-e-nafs). This means cleansing the sensual self from its worldy qualities, and embellishing it with laudable and angelic attributes or qualities.

  2. Second, ‘Cleansing of the Heart’ (tazkiya-e-qalb). This means erasing from the heart its a) love for the short-lived world and b) its worry over griefs and sorrows, and establishing in their place an ardent love (ishq) for God alone.

  3. Third, ‘Emptying of the Sirr’ (takhliya-e-sirr) from all thoughts that would divert attention from the remembrance of God. Sirr is an organ of mystical vision.

  4. Fourth, ‘Illumination of the Spirit’ (tajliya-e-ruh). This means filling the spirit with the effulgence of God and the fervour of His Love.6

In addition to using specific terminology, the language of the Seven Valleys is highly stylized. It creates a tone that would have a strong resonance to a Muslim ear. For example, though a very small fraction of words in the Arabic lexicon are used in the Qur’an, Bahá’u’lláh makes frequent use of words of Qur’anic origin. When He speaks of the “seeker”, He does so using several different terms, all of which can be found in the Qur’an. This might seem insignificant, except that although Arabic claims over a million unique words, the Qur’an only uses about two thousand of them.

Muslim writers have compiled the thematic words of the Qur’an – such as those that refer to “seeking” – and ranked them according to their frequency and context of use. Some commentators have attempted to refine the definition of these words based on their patterns of usage within the Qur’anic. That Bahá’u’lláh would choose so many terms from the Qur’an must have had quite an impact on his reader, who would have known these terms and their history well.

Some words in Sufism are so specific that differing schools within Sufism cannot entirely agree on their meaning. One of these is “nafs”, a word Bahá’u’lláh uses often in the Seven Valleys. It can be translated into English as “self” or “soul”, but without the same difference in meaning that English places between these two. Of real significance is the Sufi’s relationship to his nafs, and how he has spent decades struggling to purify and conquer the nafs. Countless stories and illustrations exist to depict the nafs; whole treatises describe the stages of defeating the nafs. The battle against nafs has to do with the greater jihad, or the believer’s battle over himself. Yet none of this richness is conveyed in either of the words “self” or “soul”.

“Self”, by conjuring psychological and religious history, has similar gravity to “nafs”, but the two bodies of reference only partially overlap. When “nafs” is translated as “soul” in other places, it makes it hard to reconcile with “self”. The two meanings are not so contradictory in the original. Although “self” often contrasts with “soul” in English, “nafs” contrasts with “ruh” in Sufism – even though “ruh” can be translated as “soul” as well (though more often as “spirit”).

Since translation cannot replace years of study and experience, and since the Western reader cannot steep himself in a nineteenth century khaniq – to capture the feelings it must have evoked in its original audience – we are left with a work whose density can only be appreciated through loving attention and time. Its spiritual message is free from the barriers of language, but the specifics of its language are not free from historical context. To appreciate the text, in addition to its import, we must transport ourselves mentally to another place and time.

First, it is important to realize that Sufis envisioned the soul as passing through several perceptual stages before reaching its goal of union with God. At each stage, the seeker must purify and focus himself in order to pierce the veils surrounding him and thus succeed to the next stage. One of the values of using “stages” is that they offer a way to measure progress, and ensure that the seeker does not blithely imagine he has seen all there is to see.

Bahá’u’lláh uses a seven-fold scheme in His book, but does not confirm that there are in fact seven stages. He says only that the valleys “are said to be seven”, and makes other equally indirect statements. In some of His other books He even expands on certain stages beyond the Seven, or explains similar truths using other schemes altogether (cf. The Four Valleys).

He goes even further to say that placing emphasis on such stages, rather than on God, is to miss the mark:

Much hath been written in the books of old concerning the various stages in the development of the soul, such as concupiscence, irascibility, inspiration, benevolence, contentment, Divine good-pleasure, and the like; the Pen of the Most High, however, is disinclined to dwell upon them. Every soul that walketh humbly with its God, in this Day, and cleaveth unto Him, shall find itself invested with the honor and glory of all goodly names and stations.7

The focus is meant to be solely on God, the Beloved – all good proceeds from this. Some Sufis writers believed this also, berating others for becoming too occupied with “spiritual stations”. They can be a useful tool to find the Path, but are not to be confused with the Goal.

Since the Seven Valleys follows a somewhat traditional Sufi scheme, some understanding of Sufism will aid in understanding the language and progression of the Valleys. First, Sufis divide between two types of spiritual movement: states (hál) and stations (maqám). A state is a momentary experience, prompted by the grace of God, taking the believer to unexperienced spiritual heights for a short time. The purpose of these states is to inspire the soul to seek God more ardently, and to prove to him he still has further to go. Stations, on the other hand, are a direct result of the seeker’s striving and do not regress. These are perfections which, once attained, cannot be undone, since they constitute an extension of vision. Once the eyes are opened and behold a certain reality, the impression of what was seen cannot be removed. `Abdu’l-Bahá says:

All creation, whether of the mineral, vegetable or animal kingdom, is compelled to obey the law of motion; it must either ascend or descend. But with the human soul, there is no decline. Its only movement is towards perfection; growth and progress alone constitute the motion of the soul.8

There are three maqámát encompassed by the Seven Valleys: the station of limitation (tahdíd), which comprises the first three Valleys; the station of unity (tawhíd), which covers the next three; and the station of “faná and baqá” which are found in the last Valley (faná and baqá are described below):

maqaam-i-ta.hdiid: The station of limitation. This is expressed in the first three valleys, where the world seen by the believer is the world of his own limitations.

maqaam-i-tuw.hiid: The station of unity. This is where the believer sees with the eye of God, and beholds creation as it is, rather than as he sees it. This is the beginning of true understanding.

maqaam-i-fanaa va baqaa: Annihilation and Eternity. This is disappearance of the self in God, where the seer is lost in the seen; the self becomes nothing, and the seeker subsists in God. Also described as nothingness, this stage does not imply destruction, but absorption. (The English word “fan” is derived from fanaa, which comes from “fanatic”: someone who has lost their reason in devotion to something).

Bahá’u’lláh, like `Attár, calls His seven stages “valleys” in several places, but uses other terms as well. He refers to the Valley of Unity as the beginning of “maqaam-i-tuw.hiid”, or the station of unity (described above). Other than this, the Valley of Unity is not described as a unique station, but rather the beginning of this station. The previous valleys are collectively referred to as “maqaam-i-ta.hdiid” in this verse where the Valley of Unity is introduced:

saalik bad az seyr-i vaadii-i marifat kih aakhir-i maqaam-i ta.hdiid ast bi-avval-i maqaam-i tuw.hiid vaa.sil shavad

In the English the currently accepted translation is:

After passing through the Valley of knowledge, which is the last plane of limitation, the wayfarer cometh to the Valley of Unity…

Yet translated literally it renders as:

The wayfarer, after the journey of the valley of knowledge – which is the end of maqaam-i-ta.hdiid – cometh to the beginning of maqaam-i-tuw.hiid

The Valley of Unity is a dividing line between two larger stations: Knowledge marking the end of maqaam-i-ta.hdiid, and Unity beginning maqaam-i-tuw.hiid. The valleys after unity – contentment and wonderment – precede the station of faná and baqá, which is the seventh valley. That valley is described as “the dying from self and the living in God”, which in the orignal uses the terms fanaa and baqaa:

iin rutbih maqaam-i fanaa-i az nafs va biqaa-i bi-al-llah ast

“This level [the seventh valley] marks the station of abandoning self (faná) and abiding in God (baqá).”

As the seeker moves from stage to stage, his vision becomes more penetrating until he is able to see God within the realities of all things. “…these stages depend on the vision of the wayfarer.” Since this is a journey of vision, there is no concept of time or distance that can be made to fit. As suddenly as the inner eyes are opened, the journey is complete. To “finish” the Seven Valleys, say the Sufis, ends the first part of the soul’s journey, “the journey to God”, and begins the second part – which is endless – “the journey in God”.

Making progress on the journey requires “steps” which are actually advances in degrees of attention9. As the seeker pays closer and closer attention to the Book of Reality, he discerns more of the secrets written on its pages. “He beholdeth in illusion the secret of reality, and readeth from the attributes the riddle of the Essence.” At first time is a barrier, requiring patience; then pain, which needs a lover’s eagerness to endure whatever is demanded by his love; and finally evil, which tests the soul’s faith in a perfect and loving Creator.

Passing these initial stages frees the seeker from looking at reality according to his own limitations, and transports him to a station where “none shall contemplate anything whatsoever but that he shall see God therein.” At that point his faith is complete, and he passes beyond the need for tests. He has proved his devotion: “This station conferreth the true standard of knowledge, and freeth man from tests.” All fear is banished from his heart since he now knows: “All things are of God”.

When there is no more fear, the heart is open to learning the true secrets of love (“Love never dwelleth in a heart possessed by fear”). That is, the seeker moves from his earlier form of love, which was love for God exclusive of the world, to the realm of unity, where his love for God embraces all His works. He enters the Kingdom of God, makes his dwelling place in heaven, and eats of the fruits of paradise. Here there is perfect contentment, and all that happens is in accordance with the seeker’s pleasure10.

However, this love itself can be a veil, since it blinds the seeker from realizing that he is at unity even with the One Whom he loves. When the seeker himself disappears, he enters a condition of annihilation in the presence of God – faná – the way a candle’s flame vanishes before the sun. Although this state is nothingness in relation to the seeker, it is baqá (eternity, subsistence) in relation to God. “This is the plane whereon the vestiges of all things are destroyed in the traveler…”

These stations are a process of removing veils; they do not yet concern the Reality beyond those veils. A sleeper must remove the covers from his bed to waken, but the process of removing those covers has little to do with the waking world. So these stages that relate to uncovering the eyes do not consider what is seen when they are fully opened. That world is infinite and without end – another justification for sometimes translating the baqá as “eternity”. Such begins the “journey in God”.

This process of awakening is meant to take place within this life. In a hadith is says, “die before you die”. Also, the kingdoms encountered by the seeker – heaven, paradise and the like – exist in the world around us. Since they are perceptual worlds, they cannot be separated in terms of time or space. Life and death are metaphors for the life of faith and the death of unbelief. To die and be born again in heaven is a description of what happens when the seeker dies from self and awakens to appreciate the manifold wonders of God’s creation. To consider that these stations are beyond an ordinary person’s reach, or that we must wait until physical death to approach them, places too much importance on the body and attempts to connect what is timeless to a specific temporal event.

What is needed to progress is the grace of God. As `Abdu’l-Bahá tells us, man has complete freedom in choosing to undertake the journey but cannot move if left unassisted by God: “…the inaction or the movement of man depend upon the assistance of God. If he is not aided, he is not able to do either good or evil.”11 Thus prayer and meditation, supplication to God, are extremely effective tools for progressing along the spiritual Path: “… the core of religious faith is that mystic feeling which unites Man with God. This state of spiritual communion can be brought about and maintained by means of meditation and prayer.”12

Thus assisted, one may come to behold the perfect love expressed by the creation around us. Until we learn the meaning of true love, we cannot appreciate what the world really represents: “If thou lovest Me not, My love can in no wise reach thee.”

I therefore reveal unto thee sacred and resplendent tokens from the planes of glory, to attract thee into the court of holiness and nearness and beauty, and draw thee to a station wherein thou shalt see nothing in creation save the Face of thy Beloved One, the Honored, and behold all created things only as in the day wherein none hath a mention.13

  1. Shoghi Effendi, God Passes By, p.140↩︎



  4. This delineation is that described by the Naqshbandis.↩︎


  6. based on↩︎

  7. Bahá’u’lláh, Gleanings, p.159↩︎

  8. `Abdu’l-Bahá, Paris Talks, p.89↩︎

  9. “Bahá’u’lláh has stated that the meaning of step or pace in this context is ‘Tavajjoh’, paying attention or concentrating (Má’idiy-i-çsimání, Vol.8, p.22)” – Iraj Ayman↩︎

  10. cf. “The Accepting Soul”, as described by `Abdu’l-Bahá in His commentary on the Suriy-i-Rúm.↩︎

  11. `Abdu’l-Bahá, Some Answered Questions, p.249↩︎

  12. Shoghi Effendi, Directives from the Guardian, p.86↩︎

  13. Bahá’u’lláh, The Seven Valleys, p.3↩︎