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Copper to Gold?

Posted by Sen on February 3, 2014

coppernuggetAn enquirer asked: Do Baha’is really believe that copper turns into gold after 70 years if protected from becoming dry (or solidified)?

The most important skill for understanding scriptures, including the Bahai scriptures, is not mastery of the original languages, or other arcane knowledge, but familiarity with literary language: the ability to read poetry and similar writing. Religious language is necessarily metaphorical, using the physical world (as understood at the time) as a correlative and reflection of spiritual realities. A literalist mind-set makes a complete hash of reading any scripture. This is a problem in all religious communities today, as modernity has given such a high status to the hard sciences and their way of describing the world that many people have never learned to read literary language as literature.

The text the enquirer asked about is in Baha’u’llah’s “Book of Certitude” or Kitab-i Iqan. In Shoghi Effendi’s translation it reads:

It is evident that nothing short of this mystic transformation could cause such spirit and behaviour, so utterly unlike their previous habits and manners, to be made manifest in the world of being. … Such is the potency of the Divine Elixir, which, swift as the twinkling of an eye, transmuteth the souls of men!

For instance, consider the substance of copper. Were it to be protected in its own mine from becoming solidified, it would, within the space of seventy years, attain to the state of gold. There are some, however, who maintain that copper itself is gold, which by becoming solidified is in a diseased condition, and hath not therefore reached its own state.

… the real elixir will, in one instant, cause the substance of copper to attain the state of gold, and will traverse the seventy-year stages in a single moment. Could this gold be called copper? Could it be claimed that it hath not attained the state of gold, whilst the touch-stone is at hand to assay it and distinguish it from copper? Likewise, these souls, through the potency of the Divine Elixir, traverse, in the twinkling of an eye, the world of dust and advance into the realm of holiness;
(Baha’u’llah, The Kitab-i Iqan, p. 156)

Let’s start reading this at the end, with “Could it be claimed that it hath not attained the state of gold, whilst the touch-stone is at hand to assay it and distinguish it from copper?” Baha’u’llah expects his readers to see that a touchstone is available, but this is an assaying tool: not the sort of thing that readers would have on their tables. I think the touch-stone is a metaphor for Baha’u’llah himself, who really is “on hand.” And if the touchstone is metaphorical, the copper and gold must also be metaphorical.

The context gives us more clues. The previous context is the “mystic transformation” of certain “blessed souls,” and the point being made is that this can happen gradually, over a lifetime, or, with the help of the elixir it can happen in a moment. And then he argues, who is to say that somebody is not the real gold (just because he was something less than that previously), when the Touchstone is at hand and says “he’s real gold”?

There are more indications that the transformation of copper to gold is being used simply as a metaphor. The copper is “in the mine of its own self.” Copper does not have a self, people do. Seventy years is the lifetime of a man.

In a tablet to Ali Kuli Khan, Abdu’l-Baha states that the words “… the substance of copper … Were it to be protected in its own mine from becoming solidified, … would, within the space of seventy years, attain to the state of gold” is a quote, pointing to the views of one group of natural philosophers. (He writes, in hekaayat qawl-e hukamaa ast). I do not have the tablet, which so far as I know is unpublished, just a citation and transliteration, but I regard the source as reliable if not authoritative. Moreover, it is plausible that Baha’u’llah did intend these words to be recognized as a quotation, since he then contrasts that view to the ideas of another group who “maintain that copper itself is gold, which by becoming solidified is in a diseased condition, and hath not therefore reached its own state.”

In that citation, Abdu’l-Baha refers to the copper being protected from a “preponderance of dryness.” Solidity and a preponderance of dryness are synonyms, in the physics that prevailed in the Islamic world at the time (which drew on classical Greek physics). This physics supposes that all things are composed of four elements: earth, fire, water and air, of which only the dry element, earth, is a solid. So if something is a solid it must by definition have a preponderance of dryness. Shoghi Effendi’s term “becoming solidified” is therefore a good translation, for a readership who do not know about the categories used in the physics of that time. A translator must always consider the readers as well as the source text, for the purpose of translation is to convey as much as possible of the source to an audience who cannot read the original, and have a different cultural and educational background.

In other works by Baha’u’llah that refer to this physics and the alchemical process, the dry/earth element represents the body of an individual, and water represents spirit. gold-loorbeerkranzSo to be preserved for 70 years from a preponderance of the dry, is to escape the attractions of materialism, and benefit from a spiritual education, throughout one’s life. And potentially, to be transformed from a mixed character to a pure one, from copper to gold.

Baha’u’llah did not believe in alchemy, in the form that was proposed by Islamic scholars. He writes in the same book:

Among the specified sciences were the science of metaphysical abstractions, of alchemy, and natural magic. Such vain and discarded learnings, this man hath regarded as the pre-requisites … (The Kitab-i Iqan, p. 186)

Nevertheless he often uses alchemical metaphors. Here’s another:

The Book of God is wide open, and His Word is summoning mankind unto Him. No more than a mere handful, however, hath been found willing to cleave to His Cause, or to become the instruments for its promotion. These few have been endued with the Divine Elixir that can, alone, transmute into purest gold the dross of the world, and have been empowered to administer the infallible remedy for all the ills that afflict the children of men…
(Gleanings from the Writings of Baha’u’llah, p. 183)

~ Sen
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11 Responses to “Copper to Gold?”

  1. Tonyfish58 said

    Sen – Thank you for the article. I see your point. At the same time I see no reason that this outcome could not be achieved in a literal sense as well. What is the Real elixir to make this so? God Bless, I enjoy your replies on the Forums – Regards Tony

  2. Hasan said

    Sen, what about this note of the Aqdas? “The first sign of the coming of age of humanity referred to in the Writings of Baha’u’llah is the emergence of a science which is described as that “divine philosophy” which will include the discovery of a radical approach to the transmutation of elements. This is an indication of the splendours of the future stupendous expansion of knowledge”.

  3. He does say that deadly poison can become (or be changed into) panacea of unfailing efficacy. This is borne out by homeopathy and also, perhaps, by such things as vaccination and even Botox. As difficult as it may be to affect such a transmutation, Bahá’u’lláh has been empowered to accomplish the far harder job of changing hearts. In all of this, I don’t see Him as ruling out certain kinds of literal transmutation but He is certainly saying that the bigger and more worthwhile challenge is changing hearts.

    Oh, He also says that any substance can be made to acquire all the attributes of another substance. “Say: Yes, it is possible.”

    One further thing is the interesting fact that the technology now exists to change one element into another, including gold. It involves, I think, bombarding stuff with certain kinds of radiation (regrettably, I’m not a nuclear scientist). Unfortunately, it costs much more than just mining the stuff. I read that someone looked into the matter and specifically the dates when Bahá’u’lláh revealed that tablet and when the technology was developed. Turns out that the time period from the one to the other was 70 years!

  4. Mark Townsend said

    70 was also the average life span, “three score and ten”. By the end of our life, are we gold?

  5. Darrell said

    Sen, I love the metaphors and always viewed this passage as both metaphorical and literal, but had not considered the correlation to Greek physics: “solidarity” = “earth” = “materialism”. So to answer Mark, I might say YES, but only if that life of 70 years has not been too “earthly”.
    One point I want to offer regards your introduction about understanding the writings. It doesn’t even require an ability to read poetry. Baha’u’llah says: “The understanding of His words and the comprehension of the utterances of the Birds of Heaven are in no wise dependent upon human learning. They depend solely upon purity of heart, chastity of soul, and freedom of spirit. This is evidenced by those who, today, though without a single letter of the accepted standards of learning, are occupying the loftiest seats of knowledge; and the garden of their hearts is adorned, through the showers of divine grace, with the roses of wisdom and the tulips of understanding. Well is it with the sincere in heart for their share of the light of a mighty Day!” (Baha’u’llah, The Kitab-i-Iqan, p. 210)
    Years ago I had a friend who could barely read. She struggled with each word, trying to recognize the word by its shape, and often
    said an entirely incorrect word when reading. One day, so excited to share something she had read, she read a passage to several of us and slaughtered every large word while reading. (We were all familiar with the passage and only smiling, did not interrupt.) But she closed the book and said without hesitation, “now this is what this passage means to me…” and proceeded to blow us away with her profound understanding of the passage. Those three child-like qualities of “purity of heart, chastity of soul, and freedom of spirit” were evident in her and, I feel, constitute that “ethereal” (or to the Greeks, “water”) quality essential to a mystic transformation.

  6. Sen said

    “Freedom of spirit” will also help with reading poetry. The human spirit is a rational faculty. To read poetry, or scripture, it must not be shackled to brute fact and causal relationships, it must find associations, commonalities and beauties. It must be free.

  7. harry said


    I have a fundamental problem with your justification about the language of religion being poetic and religion being necessarily Metaphorical. Although I can easily accept an amount of metaphors whose intention and meaning is apparent in the context used (just like the metaphors people use in there everyday communications), any other metaphors that are not clearly cut will become problematic for those who want to adhere to the religion and the divine scripture. For if the meaning of a metaphor is not understood, it will cause ambiguity and misguidance, which is against the spirit of religion itself whose purpose is to guide people to do what is right and refrain from what is wrong, and not baffle them about the meaning of a specific verse or text and creating further divisions and differences. Baffling, using extensive unclear metaphors, and poetic language are peculiar to Sufi and Mystic cults, not divine religions.

    What is apparent from the text of the Iqan in very simple terms, is the fact that Baha’u’llah wants to show how people change from “bad” to “good”. He uses a metaphor of how “copper” changes to “gold.” The meaning of this metaphor is very clear.

    Now what you have done in your explanation is that you are apparently claiming there is a metaphor inside a metaphor! In which the second metaphor virtually has the meaning of the original word. You have reached this conclusion by claiming that “touchstone is on hand” refers to Baha’u’llah whilst that touchstone was already mentioned in the first paragraph, parts of which you have deleted:

    “so utterly unlike their previous habits and manners, to be made manifest in the world of being. For their agitation was turned into peace, their doubt into certitude, their timidity into courage.” The touchstone is the evident change in there manners not Baha’u’llah.

    Furthermore, Baha’u’llah is not citing the beliefs of others when he is speaking about the seventy year period needed for copper to change into gold. It is his own belief and at the end he says other people have other beliefs. This can clearly be seen in other tablets from Baha’u’llah. For instance:

    “The King of the Names (God) has made the possibility in some things to change and in others He hasn’t. For instance copper can turn into Gold but earth/soil (turab) does not have this possibility actually (bil-fi`l). Since the scientists have already mentioned these subjects this servant did not like to mention it comprehensively.”
    Ma’idiyi asimani, vol. 7, p.44

    You see he is clearly stating his own belief which is based on beliefs about alchemy that were known in those days. He explicitly says I won’t explain it furthermore because it has already been mentioned by others, this apparently shows that he did indeed believe in alchemy as proposed by scientists (you have mentioned Islamic scholars which is wrong).

  8. Peter said

    “Considering that a century ago, nobody knew the nature of matter, and couldn’t split any kind of an atom, it should not surprise the scientist that ‘Abdu’l-Bahá states that copper can be transmuted into gold.

    “There may come a time, for all we know, when the mass of many atoms can be changed by scientists. We have no way of proving or disproving at present the statement of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá. Just because we cannot demonstrate a contention in the Bahá’í Teachings does not mean the contention is not true.

    “The same holds true of the statement of Bahá’u’lláh in the Íqán, regarding transmutation of copper into gold after seventy years, under certain conditions.

    “We as Bahá’ís must assume that, as He had access to all knowledge, He was referring to a definite physical condition which theoretically might exist. Because we don’t know what this condition is in scientific terms does not refute Bahá’u’lláh’s statement at all.

    “The Guardian hopes that Mr. … will not let so small a thing stand in his path. The principle of Faith is to accept anything the Manifestation of God says, once you have accepted Him as being the Manifestation. That is really the crux of the whole matter. It is a question of confidence.”

    (From a letter written on behalf of Shoghi Effendi to an individual believer, March 14, 1955)

    # 1580:

  9. dale ramsdell said

    He (Baha’u’llah) is making a point from a reference understood within a cultural context which includes alchemy according to
    their perceived world view. From this He points them in a spiritual direction. It really has nothing to do with material reality itself (in my opinion), for it is even as the audience intended by the work of the Seven Valleys, and the Four Valleys, which must be understood in the context of Sufism. Whatever the particular “language” of the audience, Baha’u’llah enters into their “world” and, speaking to them in their language, lifts them out of the valley of limitations and earthly meanings and directs them to the heights of Certitude.

  10. Hasan said

    Sen, you happily passed over my comment:

    Sen, what about this note of the Aqdas? “The first sign of the coming of age of humanity referred to in the Writings of Baha’u’llah is the emergence of a science which is described as that “divine philosophy” which will include the discovery of a radical approach to the transmutation of elements. This is an indication of the splendours of the future stupendous expansion of knowledge”.

  11. Sen said

    I do not know of any support in the Bahai writings for this belief Hasan. The “sign” affirmed in the Book is the selection of a common language and script. The “sign” given elsewhere is in Baha’u’llah’s “Tablet addressed to Shaykh Salman: ‘One of the signs of the maturity of the world is that no one will accept to bear the weight of kingship. Kingship will remain with none willing to bear alone its weight. That day will be the day whereon wisdom will be manifested among mankind.'” (tr. Shoghi Effendi, The Promised Day is Come, p. 70)

    The belief in a third sign which is the transmutation of elements is, in my opinion, not to be relied upon. Mr. Taherzadeh asserts that such a tablet exists:

    The question of alchemy has occupied the minds of people for centuries. During Bahá’u’lláh’s ministry it was a live issue and several believers were involved in it. Bahá’u’lláh urged them not to seek to achieve it at that time. However, He confirmed that transmuting baser metal into gold, the dream of the alchemist, was possible. He promised that it would be realized, and asserted that its realization would constitute one of the signs of the coming of age of humanity. He also prophesied that after its discovery a great calamity would await the world unless mankind came under the shelter of the Cause of God.
    (Adib Taherzadeh, The Revelation of Baha’u’llah v 2, p. 268)

    But where is this tablet? I am suspicious that he may be reading this meaning into the text, after the fact of Hiroshima. I know of nobody writing before WWII who asserted the tablet existed and had this meaning.

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