In Nightingale of Separation, Baha’u’llah addresses the grief that he and the believers experienced when he was forced to move his residence from Baghdad to the Ottoman capital of Istanbul (Constantinople). The tablet was most likely written shortly after Baha’u’llah arrived in the capital in August 1863.
Prior to this exile, Baha’u’llah’s family had lived in Baghdad for 10 years. During this time, Baha’u’llah settled himself there and built up warm relations with the local population and beyond. However, Baha’u’llah’s enemies in the Babi community pursued a campaign of disinformation about him, and the Persian authorities in Baghdad used this to bias the Ottomans against him. Eventually, the campaign resulted in Baha’u’llah being ‘invited’ to move to Istanbul, an invitation that Baha’u’llah accepted. This was tragic news for the believers. They faced being separated from Baha’u’llah, who they loved to distraction. Shoghi Effendi quotes an eye witness as saying: “That day … witnessed a commotion associated with the turmoil of the Day of Resurrection. Methinks, the very gates and walls of the city wept aloud at their imminent separation from the Abha Beloved.” The searing grief brought on by Baha’u’llah’s enforced departure is the theme and mood of this tablet.
Baha’u’llah begins the tablet with 10 lines of verse, in which he addresses his grief at being parted from his friends and describes how the inhabitants of all the worlds of God also experienced it. He follows this up in the first paragraph with an acknowledgement that his departure was the hand of destiny delivering the decree of God.
In paragraph two, Baha’u’llah says that all the past scriptures tell of a time when a “bird of Persia shall sing an Arabian melody”. The writings that Baha’u’llah had in mind here have not yet been identified. But Baha’u’llah’s point is that this prophecy was fulfilled by his exile from Iran and decade-long stay in Baghdad. He chastises the people for not recognising the bounty that God had placed under their noses and states that the favour is now passed forever.
The symbolism in the phrase “hoopoe of the Sheba of love” has its origins in the story of Solomon and the Queen of Sheba in surah 27 of The Qur’an. At verse 20, the story goes that Solomon is looking over his birds, which comprise part of his army, and notices that the hoopoe is missing. Shortly after, the hoopoe arrives to tell Solomon that he has found a previously undiscovered land called Sheba, which is ruled by a queen and whose inhabitants worship the sun. Solomon sends the hoopoe with a letter challenging the queen to abandon her idolatry and worship God. When Solomon and the queen meet, there is a playful rivalry between them, suggesting mutual affection. Eventually, the queen abandons her idolatry and accepts Solomon’s God.
Baha’u’llah’s symbolism also draws on the major work of Persian poetry, Conference of the Birds, written in the 12th century by Farid ud-Din Attar. As in The Qur’an story, the hoopoe plays the role of a messenger. This time she tells the birds of the world about the existence of their bird-king, Simorgh. The birds are excited about the news for they are looking for a king, and so the hoopoe leads the birds on the perilous spiritual journey beyond the mountains of Qaf to Simorgh’s homeland. Attar’s use of the name ‘Simorgh’ here is a play on words: ‘Simorgh’ is the name of a mythical Persian bird and ‘Si-morgh’ means ’30 birds’. This double meaning carries the purport of the story, which is that the spiritual homeland of Simorgh is found within the selves of the birds.
Baha’u’llah is making the same point here in relation to the prophecy about the bird of Persia singing its Arabian melody. Firstly, he uses the symbolism of two birds – the nightingale and the hoopoe. He says that “the nightingale of the divine garden … settles only in the spiritual rose bower” and that “the hoopoe of the Sheba of love” lives only “in the Sinai of the spirit”. In both cases, each bird is found only in the world of the spirit. Therefore, in order to hear their melody, a person needs to listen to the songs of the spirit within them.
In a third attempt to make his point, Baha’u’llah uses the imagery of the lover and the beloved. Here, he says that “the hearts of lovers seek no visage save the beauty of the beloved”. In other words, a true lover will not be distracted by anything from the quest to find the beloved. Such a person is focused entirely on the call of love within and will seek the beloved to the exclusion of all else.
This is why the people failed to hear Baha’u’llah’s Arabian melody, which he sang while he lived in Baghdad. His songs can be heard only in the world of the spirit. If the people are not listening to what’s being broadcast on the spiritual channels, they will not hear him. Baha’u’llah accuses the people of being concerned with themselves and not the beloved, and of being birds of night, which are unable to see the sun. He announces that he has flown away to another perch in the city of the “unknowable divine Cloud”. As explained in the introduction to the poem, Sprinkling of the Cloud Beyond Being, the ‘divine cloud’ is a reference to the inner sanctuary of God.
Finally, Baha’u’llah counsels his lovers not to let grief consume them completely. They should be patient and remember the “union of souls” during their lamentation.
 Shoghi Effendi: God Passes By, (Wilmette, Illinois: Baha’i Publishing Trust, 1970) p 148.
Further discussion on this tablet is found in Adib Taherzadeh: The Revelation of Baha’u’llah. Baghdad, 1853-63 (Oxford: George Ronald, 1974) p 244.