Words of Grace
Posted by Sen on September 1, 2009
One of the Bahais asked what wording is meant by the following verse in Baha’u’llah’s Tablet of Medicine (Lawh-e Tibb):
و اذا شرعت فی الأکل فَابْتَدِئْ باسمی الأبهی
ثمّ اختم باسم ربّک مالک العرش و الثّری
When you would commence eating, begin by mentioning My Most Glorious Name (al-abha) and finish it with the Name of Thy Lord, the Possessor of the Throne above and of the earth below. (Translation by Stephen Lambden)
The Bahai writings contain few commands, and many counsels and admonitions, and it is not always clear what is a command. In this case, the entire Tablet of Medicine is couched as advice. While Abdu’l-Baha followed the practice of saying grace at table, we do not know whether this was because he understood Baha’u’llah to be directly instructing his followers to mention God before eating. Someone once said that good manners are about making the other fellow feel comfortable. Perhaps Abdu’l-Baha was simply following Middle Eastern ‘good manners’ when in Palestine, and western manners when he was traveling in the West. Saying grace at table is in any case not a part of Bahai practice that Shoghi Effendi or the Universal House of Justice have emphasized, so it is presumably a commendable rather than required practice, unless the Universal House of Justice at some time says otherwise.
But what exactly is it that one is supposed to say before and after a meal?
The Arabic text above allows four readings:
1 – either one begins and ends by saying bismillah, or you say this in your own language, such as “in the name of God”, or
2 – begin and end by saying bismalabha (or ‘in the name of the All-Glorious’), or
3 – begin with bismalabha and end with bism al malik al `arsh wa-as-sara (begin with ‘in the name of the Glorious’ and end with ‘in the name of God, Lord of the throne on high and the earth below’).
4 – begin and end by mentioning God, for example in a prayer.
Of these, I think the first is most likely to have been what Baha’u’llah and Abdu’l-Baha would have expected people to do, because this was normal in the Middle East and was the practice at Abdu’l-Baha’s table. Thornton Chase (In Galilee, 21 (Kalimat Press) describes a lunch:
…food was first offered him, but he refused until all were served when he took some also. Then looking around the table and noting that none were eating, he said: “Bismillah!” (In the Name of God), signifying that we should eat.
Bismillah was also the formula that Baha’u’llah used in the same sense – the head of the table or the person in charge pronounces the words, and everyone feels free to begin. (Samandari, Moments, 4 (Kalimat Press)
While “Bismillah” is, contextually, the most likely intention, I think it is also important to say that if the text of the Tablet of Medicine allows four different readings and practices, then we are free to adopt any one of the four. The ambiguity of the text effectively allows the believer a freedom of choice, and philological or historical considerations about what Baha’u’llah ‘really’ intended — however valid as scholarship — cannot limit your freedom to practise the Faith as you wish. Naturally if other scriptural texts or interpretations from the Guardian are found, or other information about Abdu’l-Baha’s practice emerges, that should be taken into account.
One has to consider not only what meanings the text can bear and, if you choose, what is historically most likely to have been the intention, but also what is the best practice for your own situation. In one situation, ‘Bismillah’ might sound like a strange oriental password, in another setting the Arabic words might be easily accepted as a cultural practice, whereas saying “In the Name of God” in a language clearly understood might appear rather grandiose and formal, for two sandwiches and a cup of tea. In some settings, a grace said in your own words is expected, in other settings it is a time-honoured formula or a familiar verse of scripture. Sometimes the appropriate thing might be to say nothing, and remember God in your heart.
When Mary Lucas visited Abdu’l-Baha in January, 1905, she noted that the household did not say grace and asked why. Her observation runs against all the other evidence, and I have no explanation for it. Having spent six weeks in Egypt before her pilgrimage, she would surely have been able to recognize the Bismillah if it were spoken. Abdu’l-Baha told her, according to her published notes:
My heart is in a continual state of thanksgiving, and so often those accustomed to this form say the words with the lips merely, and their hearts are far from being in a state of thanksgiving.
Food is more than just nutrition. Its symbolic functions have been intertwined with religious practices since the dawn of time. The resurrected Christ, for example, takes bread and gives thanks. (Luke 24:30) and the Quran says:
Eat of the good things wherewith We have provided you, and render thanks to Allah if it is (indeed) He Whom ye worship.
(Pickthall tr., 2:172 – The Cow)
Benefits and (divers) drinks have they from them. Will they not then give thanks ?
(Pickthall tr., 36:73 – Ya Sin)
Words of Grace
The fourth and broadest reading of the verse in the Tablet of Medicine is that it simply means to begin and end a meal by mentioning God in some way, whether from the Bahai Writings, in your own words, or in one of the formulas which can be read in the text of the Tablet of Medicine. Conversely, if you think that what is strictly intended is “Bismillah” or one of the other formulas, this does not prevent those words being combined with a grace said in your words, or from the Writings.
There are a number of ‘table’ prayers in the Bahai Writings. I have found some of them, and please feel free to add your own finds through the ‘comments’ section to this page. The first I found are two prayers in Tablets of ‘Abdu’l- Baha, page 167.
The first, in my translation, reads:
O my Lord and my Hope. Praise be to Thee that Thou hast sent down for us this spiritual table, this divine bounty, this heavenly blessing. O our Lord, enable us to eat of this food of the kingdom so that its subtle essences may pervade the foundations of our spiritual being and that we may attain to such heavenly strength that we may serve Thy cause, diffuse Thy signs, and adorn Thy orchard with the loftiest trees, the swaying foliage shedding sweet fragrances. Thou, verily, art the All-Giving, the Possessor of great bounty, and Thou, verily, art the Merciful, the Compassionate. 
The second reads:
O my Lord, my Hope!
Thanks be unto Thee for these foods and benefits. O Lord! Suffer us to ascend to Thy Kingdom and to sit at the tables of thy divine world. Nourish us with the food of Thy meeting and cause us to attain to the sweetness of beholding Thy beauty, forasmuch as this is the utmost wish, the mightiest gift and the greatest bestowal. O Lord, O Lord! Make this feasible unto us. Verily Thou art the Beneficent, the Giver! Verily Thou art the Bestower, the Mighty, the Merciful.
More such prayers for mealtimes can be found in the Bahai Writings by using a search engine such as Ocean. Another source is the diary of Mahmud Zarqani, which is not scripture but a relatively reliable pilgrim’s note, recorded in Persian. He offers us these table prayers used by Abdu’l-Baha:
He is God! Thou seest us, O my God, gathered around this table, praising Thy bounty, with our gaze set upon Thy Kingdom. O Lord! Send down upon us Thy heavenly food and confer upon us Thy blessing. Thou art verily the Bestower, the Merciful, the Compassionate.
October 14 1912, 327
He is God! How can we render Thee thanks, O Lord? Thy bounties are endless and our gratitude cannot equal them. How can the finite utter praise of the Infinite? Unable are we to voice our thanks for Thy favors and in utter powerlessness we turn wholly to Thy Kingdom beseeching the increase of Thy bestowals and bounties. Thou art the Giver, the Bestower, the Almighty.
October 15 1912, 329 (one evident typo in the published version has been corrected).
O Thou kind Lord, we render thanks unto Thee that thou has brought us from the farthest lands of the East to the most distant lands of the West and gathered us at this table arrayed with the finest, most diverse, sweetest and most delicious material foods. We thank Thee especially for the presence of those who have turned toward the Kingdom of Thy favor and have fixed their eyes upon the horizon of Thy Kindness.
O Lord! These souls have turned toward Thee, they desire Thy pleasure and are grateful for Thy blessings. They walk in the ways of Thy will. O Lord! Grant them heavenly food; enable them to partake of the Lord’s supper. Exalt this nobly lady in Thy Kingdom, bestow everlasting life upon her and grant her Thine eternal favour. As Thou has given u these earthly blessings so, too, give us heavenly food. Bestow upon us Thine everlasting grace. Strengthen us to arise in praise and gratitude to Thee that we may be aided and assisted to do that which beseems Thy glorification.
Thou art the Mighty, the Generous, the Compassionate
(November 4 1912, 372-3.)
He is God! O Lord! We are assembled here in the utmost love and are turned toward Thy Kingdom. We seek none other but Thee and desire not but Thy good pleasure. O Lord! Make this food heavenly and make those assembled here of the hosts of Thy Supreme Concourse so that they may become life-giving and the cause of the enlightenment of the world of man, that they may arise to guide all the people of the world. Thou art the All-Powerful, the Almighty, the Forgiving and the Kind.
(November 9 1912, 382-3.)
While Abdu’l-Baha ways staying with Phoebe Hearst’s house in California, he was asked to say a benediction at lunch. He said:
He is God! Behold us, O Lord, gathered at this board, thankful for Thy bounty, our gaze turned to Thy Kingdom. O Lord! Send down unto us Thy heavenly food and blessing from Thee. Verily, Thou art the Generous, and verily, Thou art the Beneficent, the Merciful.
And at dinner next day:
He is God! O Lord! How shall we thank Thee! Thy bounties are limitless, and our gratitude but limited. How can the limited render thanks to the limitless? Incapable are we of offering thanks for Thy mercies. Utterly powerless, we turn unto Thy Kingdom, and beg Thee to increase Thy bestowal and bounty. Thou art the Giver, Thou art the Bestower, Thou art the Powerful.
HM Balyuzi, Abdu’l-Baha, the Centre of the Covenant 307
Two further table prayers I know of, in Arabic, are in volume 9 of the compilation Ma’idih-ye Asmani, page 74. The editor has marked them as a prayer to be said before a meal, and a prayer to be said after a meal. As I said, feel free to add your favourite table prayers through the ‘comments’ section below.
What the secretary said
There’s a letter to an individual written on behalf of Shoghi Effendi in 1947, which says,
He (the Guardian) does not feel that the friends should make a practice of saying grace or of teaching it to children. This is not part of the Bahá’í Faith, but a Christian practice, and as the Cause embraces members of all religions  we should be careful not to introduce into it the customs of our previous beliefs. Bahá’u’lláh has given us the obligatory prayers, also prayers before sleeping, for travellers, etc., we should not introduce a new set of prayers He has not specified, when He has given us already so many for so many occasions….
What are we to make of this? Obviously Shoghi Effendi would have known about the Tablet of Medicine, and its contents. An earlier letter written on his behalf refers to the “Tablet of Medicine that Bahá’u’lláh has revealed and which is translated into English...” (14 January 1932, The Light of Divine Guidance v II, 19). Moreover Shoghi Effendi had grown up in Abdu’l-Baha’s household, where the use of the Bismillah before eating was usual. Mahmud Zarqani records one instance (page 15) on the boat, in which Abdu’l-Baha asks the young Shoghi Effendi to chant a prayer before the party go to the dining room. Shoghi Effendi had also grown up in Palestine: he knew that saying grace before eating is not a uniquely Christian practice: he would have seen it in the Jewish and Muslim communities there. On the face of it, this letter reflects the views and knowledge of the secretary, not those of the Guardian. Common sense tells us that the words of the secretary, saying that saying grace “is not part of the Bahá’í Faith,” do not overrule the Tablet of Medicine and the practice of Abdu’l-Baha, and we can continue to teach the children the ‘words of grace’ that Abdu’l-Baha has given us, and use them ourselves.
~~ Sen McGlinn ~~
[Edited November 2012: added Mary Lucas pilgrim’s note.]
Short link: http://tinyurl.com/Bahai-grace
 This is my translation, from the text at Amr wa Khalq
The translation in Tablets of ‘Abdu’l-Baha implies that the translator saw a Quranic citation, “the fruits low and near” (Q 69:23), where I, following the text in Amr wa Khalq, have translated ‘the swaying foliage.”
 There are variant readings, which do not affect the meaning. Where the version cited has “all religions,” other versions have “all races and religions.” Capitalisation and punctuation also vary.
This entry was posted on September 1, 2009 at 14:23 and is filed under Bahai Writings, Community, Devotions. Tagged: Abdu'l-Baha, Baha'u'llah, Bahai Faith, benediction, bismillah, blessing food, Lawh-e Tibb, letters on behalf of Shoghi Effendi, Mahmud Zarqani, Mahmud's Diary, Saying grace, Shoghi Effendi, table prayers, Tablet of Medicine, بـهاءالله, بهائی, بهائیت, شوقی افندی. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.