Copper to Gold?
Posted by Sen on February 3, 2014
Amended July 2015
An 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 (محاس / nahas). 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 the Touchstone 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 hokamaa 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. So 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.
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)
Thus far I have dealt only with the contextual and literary reading of the text. There are more layers of meaning, if one looks at the Persian. The word translated as ‘copper’ is nahaas (نحاس). With a different vocalisation, nehaas, it means nature or origin. But there is a variant vocalisation, nohaas, which means ambiguously either copper or nature/origin. Baha’u’llah did not vocalise his text, so he leaves it to the reader to choose, or rather, he requires the Persian reader to hold both possible meanings in his mind as he continues to read. Elsewhere in Baha’u’llah’s writings, the meaning of ‘original state’ comes to the fore. For example in Prayers and Meditations XXXVIII, page 54, Shoghi Effendi translates: “the Elixir through whose potency the crude metal (nohaas) of human life hath been transmuted into purest gold.” The same meaning, the raw material of base metals, can be seen in Gleanings XCII, where he translates:
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, … These few have been endued with the Divine Elixir that can, alone, transmute into purest gold the dross (nohaas) of the world, and have been empowered to administer the infallible remedy for all the ills that afflict the children of men.
Finally, there is one place where Shoghi Effendi deduces that the meaning is not copper, a soft metal, nor ore or dross, but rather, ‘a hard substance.’ In the Tablet to Dhabeh in Gleanings (p. 245) he translates: “Sharp must be thy sight, O Dhabih, and adamant thy soul, and brass-like (nohaas) thy feet, if thou wishest to be unshaken by the assaults of … selfish desires.”
In all but the last of these examples, and in the Iqan text, we see that ‘copper’ refers to the original lower station of the soul, while gold is the goal, the possible and desired station. Baha’u’llah refers to another way of using these metaphors, saying “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. Be that as it may … ” This is a reference in passing, to the idea that we are born naturally noble, have descended into a base condition, and can return to our noble condition. If this was Europe, we would call this Rousseau’s glorification of the natural, and it is an idea that Abdu’l-Baha engaged with vigorously in his European tours. But the idea is not exclusively modern or western. It is also beside the point here, as Baha’u’llah says: the point is that the ‘elixir’ can cause an instant transformation.
Reading on, Baha’u’llah says “the real elixir will, in one instant, cause the substance of copper (مادّه نحاسی) to attain the state of gold (مقام ذهبی), and will traverse the seventy-year stages in a single moment.” Substance here (Greek ὑπόστασις) is a technical term in neo-platonic philosophy and theology, referring to the unchanging ipseity of a thing. “State” here translates maqaam, and is a technical term in Sufi terminology. It is usually translated as “station,” for example “The station (maqaam) which he who hath truly recognized this Revelation will attain is the same as the one ordained for such prophets of the house of Israel as are not regarded as Manifestations ‘endowed with constancy.‘” (Baha’u’llah, quoted in Shoghi Effendi, The World Order of Baha’u’llah, p. 111).
Gold and copper in this sentence are both in adjectival form, so we have the cupric substance attaining to (not being transformed into) the golden station. It is significant that the cupric substance does not attain to the golden substance: the ‘station’ or ‘state’ of a thing is the net effect of attributes that are attached to its substance, and the substance does not change. Steam and ice are states of water, for example. A person progresses through the spiritual stations by acquiring virtues and eliminating vices, but they remain the same person. Baha’u’llah and Abdu’l-Baha often emphasized that, while perfections are endless, and “the object of every Revelation [is] to effect a transformation in the whole character of mankind” (Kitab-e Iqan, p. 240), this does not mean that the transformed and perfected individual becomes “a perfect man” in the Sufi sense, or a Manifestation of God.
P.S. There is a paragraph in the Foreword to the 2014 retranslation of Some Answered Questions that warrants citation, as an indication of how the harmony of science and religion is being understood today at the Bahai World Centre. Not every Bahai will agree with these thoughts, as is evident from the comments to this post, but they are a useful indication of trends in thinking in the community.
A notable case in point is the treatment of the subject of the evolution of species, … which must be understood in light of several Baha’i teachings, especially the principle of the harmony of science and religion. Religious belief should not contradict science and reason. A certain reading of some of the passages found in Chapters 46–51 may lead some believers to personal conclusions that contradict modern science. Yet the Universal House of Justice has explained that Baha’is strive to reconcile their understanding of the statements of ‘Abdu’l-Baha with established scientific perspectives, and therefore it is not necessary to conclude that these passages describe conceptions rejected by science, for example, a kind of “parallel” evolution that proposes a separate line of biological evolution for the human species parallel to the animal kingdom since the beginning of life on earth.
Short link: http://wp.me/pcgF5-2oJ
[Amended July 2015: added analysis of the Persian terms; August 2015, added the quote from the Foreword of Some Answered Questions.]