Tuesday 22 June 2010

Fundamentalism, Literalism and the Bahá’í Teachings

I’ve just read Chris Schwartz’s response to my blog posts on Bahá’í scholarship, “Exegesis in the fertile twilight of uncertainty”. He’s still planning to make an official response to my previous post are all adjectives simplistic and outdated, which he has submitted to his Auxiliary Board member for review. He remarks upon several different things in his latest post, including (a) fundamentalism in the Bahá’í Faith, (b) attitudinal differences between me, my opponents and he and (c) how we might evaluate the House’s advice “with less alarmism and more scientific enthusiasm”.


Fundamentalism can describe a lot of things, such as Biblical and Qur’ánic literalism (evangelical Christians and probably the majority of Muslims) or even Vedic literalism (e.g. Hare Krsna devotees). Such fundamentalist positions regard the original scriptures of their respective religions as infallible and preserved and to be taken literally. Thus many evangelical Christians regard the entire Protestant Bible as the literal Word of God. Hare Krsna devotees regard the Bhagavad-Gita as the literal word of Krsna, spoken 5,000 years ago and preserved exactly by virtue of the disciplic succession. Prophecies contained in the Bible, Qur’án or other scriptures are regarded as requiring literal fulfilment (e.g. Christ must descend from the sky or Krsna must appear in the form of Kalki on the back of a horse with a terrifying appearance). Such literalism is rejected in the writings of Bahá’u’lláh and ‘Abdu’l-Bahá. For instance, Bahá’u’lláh states: “They have even failed to realize, all this time, that, in every age, the reading of the scriptures and holy books is for no other purpose except to enable the reader to apprehend their meaning and unravel their innermost mysteries. Otherwise reading, without understanding, is of no abiding profit unto man.” (Bahá'u'lláh, The Kitab-i-Iqan Book of Certitude, p. 172) And ‘Abdu’l-Bahá likewise states: “The obstacle which prevents the so-called religious man from accepting the teachings of God is literal interpretation. Moses announced the coming of Christ. The Israelites were awaiting him with the greatest impatience and anxiety, but when he came they called him Beelzebub. "The conditions laid down in the Bible for the coming of the expected one were not fulfilled," they said. They did not understand that the conditions were symbolical.” (‘Abdu’l-Bahá, Divine Philosophy, p. 35)

There are other distinctions that people may refer to, such as moderate and extremist/fanatic, conservative and liberal, orthodox and unorthodox. These distinctions may be useful for defining different factions, sects and churches within previous religions, but are not useful in describing individual Bahá’ís within the community. The word fundamentalism, for instance, refers to “A usually religious movement or point of view characterized by a return to fundamental principles, by rigid adherence to those principles, and often by intolerance of other views and opposition to secularism”. See: http://www.thefreedictionary.com/fundamentalism. While Bahá’ís do uphold the Faith’s fundamental principles, and adhere to them with steadfastness, Bahá’ís are not characterised by intolerance. We likewise reject literalism. I don’t believe literalism exists as a problem within the Bahá’í Community. While Bahá’ís recognise the importance of spiritual symbols, we also recognise that laws must interpreted literally. In the Lawh-i-Ta'vil, Baha'u'llah writes: "The purpose of figurative interpretation (ta'vil) is not that one be deprived of the outward sense of the verse, nor that its intent be veiled. For instance, let us say that from the heaven of the divine will the command is revealed, "Wash your faces." Do not interpret it figuratively, saying that the intent is that one should wash the countenance of one's inner self, cleansing it with the water of mystical insight, and so forth. For in this manner a person might, by reason of such a figurative interpretation, continue to have a malodorous face soiled with dirt, yet be convinced in his own mind that he had carried out the very essence of God's decree. For in this station it is clear and obvious that the intent is that the face be washed with physical water."

Aside from the issue of literalism and spiritual interpretation, the main issue over which I have faced criticism is my adherence to the Universal House of Justice’s infallibility. This is an issue which many ex-Bahá’ís have an issue with, and which I won’t go into too much here. Suffice it to say that I acknowledge the Will and Testament of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá and the House’s own definitions of its infallibility, as an infallible person or individual can define its own infallibility. There are those who would argue that we don’t have to accept the position of the House, because it can change, but such arguments undermine the Will and Testament’s guarantee that every decision of the House is inspired and approved by the Báb and Bahá’u’lláh. However some may wish to interpret the word “infallible”, what really matters is how the House itself interprets the word as their decisions are specifically guaranteed divine approval, whether there be a living Guardian or not.

The Myth of Fundamentalist and Liberal Bahá’ís:

I agree with Chris that the “menace” of fundamentalism “is simply overblown. We are not being overrun by a plague of crazed exegetical terrorists”. That is, in fact, correct. In many cases, it is the Universal House of Justice or members thereof who are criticised as being fundamentalist or conservative. There seems to be a belief among some individuals that, when the membership of the House “improves” in the future, there will be "improvement" in its decisions. Perhaps women will be allowed on the House or homosexual behaviour permitted This view, however, contradicts the Will and Testament of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá and the House’s own position. The House of Justice does not reflect the opinions of its members. The final decision, while formed by individuals, is the decision of a divine institution that is not physical. The body of the House is the earthly appearance of an institution that exists in the spiritual world. Their decisions are influenced by spiritual forces and guaranteed divine protection. Those who uphold the House’s infallibility are not fundamentalists, fanatics, or conservatives. They are simply “normal people and quite moderate at that”. The disgruntled ex-Bahá’í scholars who have concocted this myth of fundamentalism are, in fact, reacting emotionally to attacks on their positions which question the authority of the House of Justice or other basic Bahá’í principles (such as the Most Great Infallibility of the Manifestation of God) or the House’s positions on issues such as women on the House, homosexuality, etc. They react against the House’s requirements of review for publication, as if their freedom of speech were being curtailed. In reality, the review process protects the interests of the Faith by preventing individuals from misrepresenting Bahá’í teachings, as some ex-Bahá’ís would have done and continue to do.

Chris writes: “And third, the Founders of our faith installed enough safeguards to ensure that extremists of any variety, liberal or conservative, esoteric or literalist, cannot hijack the Administrative Order”. On this point, I also agree. There is simply no way for either an extremist or liberal take-over of the Faith. Because of the Administrative Order, there is also no possibility for the development of various camps, sects or movements within the Faith. Even now, some ex-Bahá’ís choose to identify themselves as “unenrolled Bahá’ís” or “liberal Bahá’ís”. Such individuals, however, can never significantly influence the vast majority of Bahá’ís who define themselves by their adherence to the Covenant of Bahá’u’lláh. While Bahá’ís in Iran, for instance, are not officially enrolled, they accept the authority of the Covenant and would be enrolled if they had the freedom to do so. “Unenrolled Bahá’ís” who have fundamental disagreements with the Administrative Order exist outside the Covenant, as they do not accept the basis of its authority—infallibility. The concept of the infallibility of the Universal House of Justice is an extension of the concept of the infallibility of the Prophet, which is the foundation of our religion, as Shoghi Effendi has written: “…the whole theory of Divine Revelation rests on the infallibility of the Prophet, be He Christ, Muhammad, Bahá'u'lláh, or one of the Others. If They are not infallible, then they are not divine, and thus lose that essential link with God which, we believe, is the bond that educates men and causes all human progress.” (From a letter written on behalf of Shoghi Effendi to an individual believer January 11, 1942) (Compilations, Lights of guidance : a Bahá'í reference file, pp. 542-543)

Certainty, Certitude and Doubt:

With regards to Chris’s statement that “I wouldn’t (anymore) call Nicholas a fundamentalist, but I would say that he is not very comfortable with uncertainty”, that is true, to a certain extent. No one can have a complete knowledge of any religion. We all have our own level of understanding and capacity for comprehension. Nevertheless, I believe it is our goal as Bahá’ís to reach a level of certainty in belief. Reason confirms faith, but faith is the basis of our whole system. I believe that Bahá’í teachings can be understood and applied to life and that laws should (as mentioned in the Lawh-i-Ta’vil) be followed according to their outward meaning. Again and again, Bahá’u’lláh exhorts the true seeker to attain unto the shores of certitude. He writes: “Such are the mysteries of the Word of God, which have been unveiled and made manifest, that haply thou mayest apprehend the morning light of divine guidance, mayest quench, by the power of reliance and renunciation, the lamp of idle fancy, of vain imaginings, of hesitation, and doubt, and mayest kindle, in the inmost chamber of thine heart, the new-born light of divine knowledge and certitude.” (Bahá'u'lláh, The Kitab-i-Iqan Book of Certitude, p. 48) This certitude comes from acknowledgment of the station of Bahá'u'lláh as the Manifestation of God. Any knowledge that we may possess is but a portion given unto us by the Manifestation. This certitude does not mean that we know everything. It means that we accept the Fount of all knowledge, are confirmed in our belief and turn aside from doubts and confusion. Doubt is not, I believe, something involuntary. Our minds are naturally inquisitive but we continually exhorted to never doubt the truth of this Revelation. “Doubt” is a wilful questioning of divine principles. When we uphold the idea that the House isn’t as infallible as the Will and Testament proclaims, we are “doubting” the true teachings of our Faith. This isn’t involuntary. Rather, it is a conscious decision made by exalting certain opinions (usually one’s own) above the authority of divine revelation.

Bahá'u'lláh writes that the cure to such doubt is acknowledgment that God “shall not be asked of His doings”. If God were to decree that women could not serve on an institution, this might contradict the principles of “feminism” or some other secular ideology, but it is a divine principle, beyond question, and none should doubt the authority thereof. Bahá'u'lláh writes:

“Blessed is the man that hath acknowledged his belief in God and in His signs, and recognized that "He shall not be asked of His doings." Such a recognition hath been made by God the ornament of every belief, and its very foundation. Upon it must depend the acceptance of every goodly deed. Fasten your eyes upon it, that haply the whisperings of the rebellious may not cause you to slip. Were He to decree as lawful the thing which from time immemorial had been forbidden, and forbid that which had, at all times, been regarded as lawful, to none is given the right to question His authority. Whoso will hesitate, though it be for less than a moment, should be regarded as a transgressor. Whoso hath not recognized this sublime and fundamental verity, and hath failed to attain this most exalted station, the winds of doubt will agitate him, and the sayings of the infidels will distract his soul. He that hath acknowledged this principle will be endowed with the most perfect constancy. All honor to this all-glorious station, the remembrance of which adorneth every exalted Tablet. Such is the teaching which God bestoweth on you, a teaching that will deliver you from all manner of doubt and perplexity, and enable you to attain unto salvation in both this world and in the next. He, verily, is the Ever-Forgiving, the Most Bountiful.” (Bahá'u'lláh, Gleanings from the Writings of Baha'u'llah, XXXVII., pp. 86-87).

The Day that Shall Not be Followed by Night:

Chris writes: “But we are not alone in that shadowy zone. If anything, if we think of our religion as a community of inquirers and our interpretations as a generational project of knowledge, then we are a fraternity in uncertainty that transcends space, time, and culture, even if we are informed by these elements along the way”. Certainly, humankind will never be perfect and will never possess all knowledge. We all differ in capacity, but we can rely on the guidance of the Universal House of Justice. We live in “the Day that shall not be followed by night” (Baha'u'llah, The Summons of the Lord of Hosts: Tablets of Baha'u'llah, p. 33), wherein we shall remain one united community and (eventually) one united humanity, that shall pursue eternal development and advancement in knowledge and spirituality. Shoghi Effendi writes:

“...There is, though, a great difference between this and previous Dispensations, for Bahá'u'lláh has written that this is "the Day which shall not be followed by night" ("God Passes By", p. 245). He has given us His Covenant which provides for a continuing centre of divine guidance in the world. The Bahá'í Faith has not lacked for ambitious men who would seize the reins of authority and distort the Faith for their own ends, but in every case they have broken themselves and dashed their hopes on the rock of the Covenant.” (14 January 1979, from a letter written on behalf of the Universal House of Justice to an individual believer) (Compilations, The Compilation of Compilations vol. I, pp. 119-120)

Monday 14 June 2010

Some Reactions to My Post on Bahá’í Scholarship

As my blog is dedicated to defending the Bahá’í Faith, it is interesting to see that there are already some strong reactions to things I have written. In particular, my recent post on Bahá’í Scholarship has had some potent reactions, one could say. Recently, for instance, there was a comment saying that it is "difficult to believe" that we have another attack on Bahá’í scholarship. I want to point out that I am not interested in attacking Bahá’í scholarship. On the contrary, my post reflects on the origins of Bahá’í scholarship, gives some quotes about the dangers of religious scholarship (as a priestly/scholarly class were the main opponents of the Báb and Bahá'u'lláh during their ministries) and, furthermore, gives some reflections on the future direction of Bahá’í scholarship. Bahá’í scholarship should be a positive thing, and there are many Bahá’í scholars who are loyal to the Covenant and upholders of the Bahá’í teachings. The only attack that exists in my blog, is an attack on the position of those who would criticise the decisions or positions of the Universal House of Justice (a thing no real Bahá’í scholar would consider doing). Bahá’í scholarship must be based on a belief in divine revelation and the infallibility of the Universal House of Justice and cannot be separated from that. Any one who does criticise the Universal House of Justice's decisions or attacks Bahá’í principles, will find his views are not supported by Bahá’ís, now or a thousand years from now. Bahá’ís will always defend their religion. The aforementioned individual should not, therefore, be surprised by a defense of Bahá’í teachings.

It is not surprising that my blog post should receive such criticism, especially from a disgruntled minority who have, for various reasons, left the Bahá’í Faith. There are many negative blogs out there. Truth is mixed with much untruth, exaggeration and misinterpretation. That is why blogs by Bahá’ís about the Bahá’í Faith are important, to counter the negativity that comes from "ex-Bahá’ís" or so-called "liberal Bahá’ís" (there are no liberal or conservative Bahá’ís in reality) who criticise the institutions of the Faith and the authority of the Universal House of Justice. There are many blogs which do uphold the Bahá’í Teachings and this blog, Crossing the Bridge, is just one more attempt to do so. Whether they like it or not, the discontent of a disenchanted few will never prevail. Indeed, God's irresistable Faith will continue to march onwards towards inevitable success, while the opposition of the few who oppose the Light will melt away like a castle built in the sand. The Lord Jesus has said: "Therefore whosoever heareth these sayings of mine, and doeth them, I will liken him unto a wise man, which built his house upon a rock: And the rain descended, and the floods came, and the winds blew, and beat upon that house; and it fell not: for it was founded upon a rock. And every one that heareth these sayings of mine, and doeth them not, shall be likened unto a foolish man, which built his house upon the sand: And the rain descended, and the floods came, and the winds blew, and beat upon that house; and it fell: and great was the fall of it." (Matthew 7:24-27, The Bible: Authorized King James Version) And as 'Abdu'l-Bahá has written: "The Covenant of God is like unto a vast and fathomless ocean. A billow shall rise and surge therefrom and shall cast ashore all accumulated foam." (Abdu'l-Baha, Selections from the Writings of Abdu'l-Baha, p. 223)

I would like to make one point of correction, as the attacking blog post had, in particular, taken a sentence from my post out of context. I appeared to refer to a particular list as a forum for unrest. If one reads my blog post in context, one will find that I meant that a vocal minority within this forum does question the House's positions on women on the House, homosexuality, etc. This is not a reflection on the list as a whole. Any forum can become a place of unrest if a few vocal individuals make it such. While I hope my original comments were clear in upholding the value of Bahá’í scholarship and could not be taken as an attack on the list itself, I have removed the list's name from the blog post. Religious e-mail groups and forums can be positive places, as long as mutual respect is maintained and fundamental principles are not attacked. It is just unfortunate that a few individuals can make such groups very unpleasant places indeed. In the context of Bahá’í e-mail groups and forums, these can only be fruitful places of discussion, in my opinion, if all the participants respect Bahá’í teachings and the authority and infallibility of the Universal House of Justice. As soon as that goes out the window, negative feelings will arise. Bahá’ís must be united in their beliefs and feel a sense of solidarity. This can be achieved through defending the Faith, not through internal conflict.

'Abdu'l-Bahá has written:

"The beloved of the Lord must stand fixed as the mountains, firm as impregnable walls. Unmoved must they remain by even the direst adversities, ungrieved by the worst of disasters. Let them cling to the hem of Almighty God, and put their faith in the Beauty of the Most High; let them lean on the unfailing help that cometh from the Ancient Kingdom, and depend on the care and protection of the generous Lord. Let them at all times refresh and restore themselves with the dews of heavenly grace, and with the breaths of the Holy Spirit revive and renew themselves from moment to moment. Let them rise up to serve their Lord, and do all in their power to scatter His breathings of holiness far and wide. Let them be a mighty fortress to defend His Faith, an impregnable citadel for the hosts of the Ancient Beauty. Let them faithfully guard the edifice of the Cause of God from every side; let them become the bright stars of His luminous skies. For the hordes of darkness are assailing this Cause from every direction, and the peoples of the earth are intent on extinguishing this evident Light. And since all the kindreds of the world are mounting their attack, how can our attention be diverted, even for a moment? Assuredly be cognizant of these things, be watchful, and guard the Cause of God." ('Abdu'l-Bahá, Selections from the Writings of Abdu'l-Baha, pp. 9-10)

Friday 11 June 2010

Trial of the Yárán (12th June 2010)

The beloved Yárán (Friends, pl. of Yár) are an informal body (well, were a body, prior to 2008) of Bahá'ís in Persia (Írán) whose purpose was the meet the minimal needs of the Bahá'í Community of that nation. According to the New Mini Companion Aryanpur Progressive Persian-English Dictionary (p. 603), yár has a number of meanings including friend, follower and teammate. Steingass's A Comprehensive Persian English Dictionary Including the Arabic Words and Phrases To Be Met Within Persian Literature (p. 1525) gives similar definitions, such as "friend, lover, companion, comrade; an assistant, defender... equal", etc. It seems to denote the concept of an intimate friend or companion, as in yár-i-ghár, "a companion in a cave, i.e. an intimate friend, confidant (in allusion to Abū Bakr, who was hidden in a cave with Muhammad before setting out on their flight to Madīnah); hence, a name of Abū Bakr".

The Yárán were not an administrative body as the Bahá'í Administrative Order was dissolved in Írán, following the Islamic revolution, when the Íránian government arrested and executed the National Spiritual Assembly (twice actually, it was re-elected after the first Assembly was executed). The Íránian government has always known about the activities of the Yárán, who were not a secret or clandestine organisation. On the contrary, the Yárán abided by the law and were respectful to the Islamic Republic. Nevertheless, they were falsely accused and arrested in 2008.

According to the Bahá'í World News Service:

"The seven Baha'i leaders imprisoned for more than two years in Iran are scheduled to make their fourth court appearance on 12 June, the Baha'i International Community has learned.

The date coincides with the first anniversary of last year's contested presidential election in Iran, as well as a global day of action aimed at calling attention to human rights abuses in that country.

The trial of the seven began on 12 January after they had been incarcerated without charge in Tehran's Evin prison for 20 months.

At the first hearing, held in Branch 28 of the Revolutionary Court in Tehran, the Baha'is categorically denied charges of espionage, propaganda activities against the Islamic order, and "corruption on earth," among other allegations.

A second appearance on 7 February was concerned mainly with procedural issues.

The third session on 12 April, which was purportedly a closed hearing, was adjourned after the seven – with the agreement of their attorneys – refused to be party to the proceedings because of the presence of nonjudicial personnel.

"To have spectators, including a film crew, in a supposedly closed hearing while denying entry to the defendants' families was unacceptable," said Diane Ala'i, Baha'i representative to the United Nations in Geneva. "There would be no objection if the trial were to be open and conducted in accordance with international standards."

"In the court sessions held so far, no evidence of wrongdoing has been presented. As their lawyers have confirmed, the defendants are completely innocent and are being persecuted solely for their religious belief," Ms. Ala'i said.

"The Iranian government should know that its actions against these innocent citizens are under scrutiny throughout the world," she said.

"Once again we call for their immediate release. Failing that, the seven should – at the very least – be released on bail pending a fair trial."

The seven defendants are Fariba Kamalabadi, Jamaloddin Khanjani, Afif Naeimi, Saeid Rezaie, Mahvash Sabet, Behrouz Tavakkoli, and Vahid Tizfahm. Before their imprisonment, they attended to the spiritual and social needs of Iran's Baha'i community, which numbers more than 300,000. Mrs. Sabet was arrested on 5 March 2008 and the others on 14 May 2008.

There are currently some 38 Baha'is in detention in various cities in Iran.
 The  Bahá'í World News Service further reports that:

On the eve of the fourth court hearing for Iran's seven imprisoned Baha'i leaders, voices are being raised around the world for them to be freed.

The Roman Catholic Archbishop of Delhi has addressed Iran's Supreme Leader calling for the release of the seven, "or at the very least for them to be released on bail and await a fair and open trial in accordance with the international standards of jurisprudence."

"In the court sessions held so far, no evidence of wrongdoing has been presented, as their lawyers have confirmed," Archbishop Vincent M. Concessao wrote in a letter to Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, dated 5 June 2010.

Yesterday, the social activist and spiritual leader, Swami Agnivesh, led a peaceful procession through the streets of New Delhi to Hyderabad House, a government-owned venue used for major events and press conferences.

Campaigners – many of them wearing masks – carried banners and placards depicting the seven Baha'i leaders, as well as images of other prisoners currently being held.

Swami Agnivesh told the gathering that humanity demands love and respect for all and should allow people of different belief systems and ideologies to co-exist in peace and solidarity, reported The Hindu newspaper...

In the United Kingdom, a mobile billboard depicting the seven Baha'i leaders has been launched in London in order to bring attention to their plight.

Meanwhile, in the United States, Representative Frank R. Wolf, yesterday submitted a statement to the Congressional Record calling for renewed support for the seven.
"The world cannot turn a blind eye to this regime's brutal repression of its own people," said Mr Wolf.

"We must continue to advocate for due process and a fair trial for these seven Baha'i leaders and for basic rights for the community as a whole which according to the recently released report of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, "has long been subject to particularly severe religious violations in Iran."" he said.
I salute these noble endeavours. I do not apologise for quoting such large chunks from the  Bahá'í World News Service website, as my purpose is to highlight this issue and raise awareness.

According to Bahá'í News UK:

The Baha’i International Community will be amongst a range of organisations cosponsoring the 12 June Global Day of Action demanding an end to human rights abuses in Iran, reports the Baha’i World News Service.

The initiative is coordinated by human rights group United4Iran. Cosponsors include Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, the Nobel Women’s Initiative, the Baha’i International Community, the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies, FIDH (Federation Internationale des ligues des Droits de l’Homme), and Pen International.

“In our support for this nonpartisan initiative, we are standing together with ordinary citizens throughout the world to draw attention to the continuing and widespread abuse of human rights in Iran,” said Diane Ala’i, representative of the Baha’i International Community to the United Nations in Geneva.

The prominent nongovernmental organizations are joining with a wide range of local, student and Internet-based groups to host simultaneous events in cities and on campuses around the globe. Online initiatives include sending messages to specific recipients in support of individual prisoners of conscience.
Bahá'u'lláh has assured us that whatever opposition may come, God's Faith and Cause will be victorious in the end. Bahá'ís have endured over a century of persecution and the Faith has grown as expanded beyond anyone's expectations. From an obscure movement in the 19th century, the Bahá'í Faith has emerged as the second most widespread religion on the planet and the newest and most modern of the great world religions. Persecution is like oil poured on the eternal flame of God's holy Faith. That flame can never be put out. Bahá'u'lláh says:

"Armed with the power of Thy name nothing can ever hurt me, and with Thy love in my heart all the world's afflictions can in no wise alarm me. Send down, therefore, O my Lord, upon me and upon my loved ones that which will protect us from the mischief of those that have repudiated Thy truth and disbelieved in Thy signs. Thou art, verily, the All-Glorious, the Most Bountiful."
(Baháí Prayers: A Selection of Prayers Revealed by Baháulláh, the Báb, and Abdul-Bahá, p. 145)

Wednesday 9 June 2010

Bahá’í Scholarship

The Origins of Bahá’í Scholarship:

Bahá’í scholarship has a long history, with its roots in the early Bábí community. The Letters of the Living were Shaykhí mullás, trained by the renowned Sayyid Kázim, who was the disciple of Shaykh Ahmad al-Ahsá’í. The Shaykhí tradition itself had its roots in the long shí‘í tradition of scholarship that claimed to derive its authority and wisdom from the holy Imáms themselves. While Shaykh Ahmad did couch his writings in the language of past traditions and philosophies, especially that of the ‘Ishráqí (illuminationist’) philosophy, his scholarship was also a renewal of scholarship itself. Although he was a recognised mujtahid, he derived his authority from a source that was invisible, unseen. He claimed to be in direct contact with the holy Imáms who appeared to him in dreams and visions. The shí‘í scholars of the day had lost touch with the spirit of Islam, that was well on its way to complete extinction. Shaykh Ahmad revealed the inner meanings of the scriptures and the prophecies concerning the resurrection and Day of Judgement.

For centuries, shí‘í Scholars existed as the custodians of Islamic knowledge. Religious scholars educated their disciples through lectures and dialogue. Devout students memorised the rules of Arabic grammar (sarf and nahw), rhetoric (balághah), logic and traditions and learned to recite the Qur’án from memory (tajwíd). While this system succeeded in its purpose of passing knowledge from one generation to the next, much of this knowledge was superficial. The Qur’án was learned as a literal text, devoid of inner spiritual meaning. The laws and traditions were endlessly debated by idle students who imposed their faulty understanding on the texts. The Shaykhís themselves, though educated by the enlightened Shaykh Ahmad and Sayyid Kázim, were nevertheless prone to the same faults as their predecessors. Exalting their acquired knowledge above spiritual intuition, many Shaykhís failed to recognise the Báb when He declared His mission in 1844. Those that did recognise the Báb often struggled with their scholarly education, which taught them to prefer man-made interpretations to the raw spiritual power of the scriptures.

The Danger of the Scholarly Class:

The point that must be emphasised is not that reliance on the scriptures blind scholars—rather, it is  reliance upon man-made knowledge that blinds the soul. Literal interpretations of the Qur’án based on man-made misinterpretations, hair-splitting ‘logic’ and philosophy, and a high regard for miracles and literal fulfilment served as barriers between the scholar and God. Desire for power, arrogant assertion of power and jealousy always corrupt clerical systems.  Bahá’u’lláh writes:

“Leaders of religion, in every age, have hindered their people from attaining the shores of eternal salvation, inasmuch as they held the reins of authority in their mighty grasp. Some for the lust of leadership, others through want of knowledge and understanding, have been the cause of the deprivation of the people. By their sanction and authority, every Prophet of God hath drunk from the chalice of sacrifice, and winged His flight unto the heights of glory. What unspeakable cruelties they that have occupied the seats of authority and learning have inflicted upon the true Monarchs of the world, those Gems of divine virtue! Content with a transitory dominion, they have deprived themselves of an everlasting sovereignty. Thus, their eyes beheld not the light of the countenance of the Well-Beloved, nor did their ears hearken unto the sweet melodies of the Bird of Desire.”
(Baha'u'llah, The Kitab-i-Iqan Book of Certitude, pp. 15-16)

The scriptures become a veil, in the sense that they are misinterpreted and enveloped in layers of man-made dogma and theologies. The biggest danger to a religion has always been its clergy, which drain the religion’s spiritual force and mislead the masses with hatred and prejudice. Bahá’u’lláh writes:

“We, verily, see amongst you him who taketh hold of the Book of God and citeth from it proofs and arguments wherewith to repudiate his Lord, even as the followers of every other Faith sought reasons in their Holy Books for refuting Him Who is the Help in Peril, the Self-Subsisting. Say: God, the True One, is My witness that neither the Scriptures of the world, nor all the books and writings in existence, shall, in this Day, avail you aught without this, the Living Book, Who proclaimeth in the midmost heart of creation: "Verily, there is none other God but Me, the All-Knowing, the All-Wise."” (Bahá’u’lláh, The Kitab-i-Aqdas, v. 168, pp. 80-81)

When the Letters of the Living and other mullás accepted the Báb, they became illumined with the light of faith. Bahá’u’lláh  writes:

“If these divines be illumined by the light of the latter Revelation they will be acceptable unto God, and will shine with a light everlasting. Otherwise, they will be declared as darkened, even though to outward seeming they be leaders of men, inasmuch as belief and unbelief, guidance and error, felicity and misery, light and darkness, are all dependent upon the sanction of Him Who is the Day-star of Truth. Whosoever among the divines of every age receiveth, in the Day of Reckoning, the testimony of faith from the Source of true knowledge, he verily becometh the recipient of learning, of divine favour, and of the light of true understanding. Otherwise, he is branded as guilty of folly, denial, blasphemy, and oppression.” (Bahá’u’lláh, The Kitab-i-Iqan Book of Certitude, p. 36)

The Emergence of Modern Bahá’í Scholarship:

These early scholars used their knowledge and education to defend the Bábí Faith and uphold its principles. Later on, as the Bahá’í Faith was established, new scholars emerged. Notable among these was Mírzá Abu’l-Fadl Gulpáygání, who wrote numerous apologetic works defending the Faith from outside attacks.  It wasn’t until the mid-1970s, however, that a new Bahá’í scholarship began to emerge, in which the Faith was studied by Bahá’ís in an academic manner. Associations for Bahá’í Studies were established and the Universal House of Justice encouraged its development. In 1979, they wrote: “The Universal House of Justice regards Bahá'í scholarship as of great potential importance for the development and consolidation of the Bahá'í community as it emerges from obscurity.” (From a letter dared 3 January 1979 written on behalf of the Universal House of Justice to an individual believer)

Trained in Western academia, Bahá’í scholars now began the process of viewing the Faith objectively, through the lens of the modern academic. Some scholars, prejudiced with the world-view they inherited from a defective, secular educational system, left the Faith when their conclusions disagreed with the Bahá’í teachings. Denis MacEoin and Juan Cole are notable among these individuals. Shoghi Effendi writes: “"It has often happened in the history of the Cause that those who were once among the leaders and in the forefront of Bahá'í activity grew in their old age lukewarm and inactive not to say sceptical."  (Shoghi Effendi, Messages to the Indian Subcontinent, p. 63) Others continued to view the Faith positively and remained within the fold. Scholarship was bound to be different for Bahá’ís as we do not have a system of clergy. The role of the scholar in the Bahá’í Faith is fundamentally different from the role of Islamic scholars. Throughout their writings, the House of Justice has focused on the role of the Bahá’í scholar as the defender of the Faith and discouraged the modern secular tendency to distort religious truth “to make it conform to understandings and perceptions current in the scientific world”:

“. . . the House of Justice understands that you desire to find ways of conveying spiritual truths in logical ways and demonstrating their validity through scientific proofs. There can be no objection to such an attitude. 'Abdu'l-Bahá Himself used such a method. The danger Bahá'í scholars must avoid is the distortion of religious truth, almost forcibly at times, to make it conform to understandings and perceptions current in the scientific world. True Bahá'í scholars should guard against this.”
(From a letter dated 7 June 1983 written on behalf of the Universal House of Justice to an individual believer)

Many achievements have been made by Bahá’í scholars and its roots are strong, but the influence of Western academia is strong.

Why Modern Scholarship is Often Misdirected:

The problem with modern scholarship is that is holds all truth to be relative. There is no good or bad—no Absolute Truth or error. There is no authority higher than can be discerned objectively, through experiment and evidence. It is strongly influenced by the anti-religious ideas that began to emerge in the 18th and 19th centuries, fueling the development of academic materialism, especially the counterfeit ideology known as Marxism. As mankind began to shed off the husks of blind religious dogma formed from the man-made interpretations of a hierarchical religious caste, it threw out the baby with the bath-water and religion became absolutely separated from science. True science (‘ilm) is knowledge, not just natural science. It embraces all aspects of human knowledge. A fundamental principle established by Bahá’u’lláh is the harmony of science (acquired knowledge) and religion (revealed knowledge). Modern scholarship rejects this notion and holds that only acquired knowledge has value, which must be independent and separate from religion, which is valueless. In reality, science and religion must go hand in hand. Religion must inform and inspire scientific research. This has, unfortunately, been ignored by many who are indoctrinated in the world of academia. The House writes:

“The House of Justice feels that Bahá'í scholars must beware of the temptations of intellectual pride. 'Abdu'l-Bahá has warned the friends in the West that they would be subjected to intellectual tests, and the Guardian reminded them of this warning. There are many aspects of western thinking which have been exalted to a status of unassailable principle in the general mind, that time may well show to have been erroneous or, at least, only partially true. Any Bahá'í who rises to eminence in academic circles will be exposed to the powerful influence of such thinking.” (From a letter dated 27 March 1983 written on behalf of the Universal House of Justice to an individual believer)

The greatest enemies of the Bahá'í Faith are not external enemies. Those members of other religions or other beliefs and philosophies who attack the Faith only serve to strengthen the Faith and increase its expansion. Government oppression leads to greater victories. The greatest enemies of the Faith are those that claim to uphold the teachings but attack the spiritual authority underlying those teachings. The Guardian writes:

"...the believers need to be deepened in their knowledge and appreciation of the Covenants of both Bahá'u'lláh and 'Abdu'l-Bahá. This is the stronghold of the Faith of every Bahá'í, and that which enables him to withstand every test and the attacks of the enemies outside the Faith, and the far more dangerous, insidious, lukewarm people inside the Faith who have no real attachment to the Covenant, and consequently uphold the intellectual aspect of the teachings while at the same time undermining the spiritual foundation upon which the whole Cause of God rests."  (Shoghi Effendi - The Light of Divine Guidance (Volume 2), p. 82)

There are many sincere Bahá’í scholars who are defending the Faith and upholding its teachings. There are others also who are more interested in promoting the idea that homosexuality is somehow a legitimate tendency, that women may one day serve on the Universal House of Justice or that the House itself isn’t quite as infallible as it’s cracked up to be. Some e-mail lists and Planet Bahá’í sometimes become forums for unrest, where scholars and others debate Bahá’í teachings in a futile endeavour to force it to conform to modern ideas or ideologies. Instead of uniting to defend the Faith, some individuals (not the majority) are interested in undermining its authority. This is what the House of Justice has condemned and Shoghi Effendi warned about.

I recently wrote to the ------ list saying: “We probably all have our own feelings about this, but in this ------ list, there are too many arguments which tend to question Baha'i teachings, rather than uphold them. What we should all be agreed on is that the Universal House of Justice members must be male and we should defend that, not question it. Most of mankind is looking for certainty in belief, not doubt and confusion. Baha'is should not be arguing with each other over points of belief, we should accept the Writings and the guidance of the House, share our personal opinions (such as mine above) without arguing about them, and defend the Faith from its critics and enemies. We should be defending the Faith from outside forces, NOT questioning the idea of an all-male House of Justice or questioning the authority of the House of Justice.”

I knew it was futile but, nevertheless, it needed to be said. The response from some was negative, as my remarks were characterised as self-righteous, preachy, unacceptable and problematic. Such a response is only to be expected. I don't blame the individual in question for his response, though I do not believe I have been preachy, etc. Most Bahá’ís are defenders of truth and uphold the teachings sincerely. The Bahá’í community is united its obedience to the Universal House of Justice and the spiritual authority of the Scriptures.

Real scholarship is not the possession of the educated, the elite, the trained academic. Real Bahá’í scholarship belongs to all Bahá’ís. Any Bahá’í can become a Bahá’í scholar simply by engaging with the teachings, studying them, defending them and applying them to life. On one e-mail group years ago I was criticised for not speaking Arabic and Persian, not having a degree, etc. Now I have studied Arabic and Persian, have an undergraduate degree and am currently completing another degree. Yet I am the same, and my views on the Faith are not changed as a result. I have not adopted the faulty system of academia or its materialistic goals and ideologies. Rather, I have seen its flaws and realise its weakness.

Grassroots Scholarship:

The Universal House of Justice seeks to engage all Bahá’ís in grassroots scholarship, a new scholarship that transcends the fortress of academia. They write: “The House of Justice is fully committed to fostering the development of Bahá’í scholarly activity in all parts of the Bahá’í world. Through their scholarly endeavours believers are able to enrich the intellectual life of the Bahá’í community, to explore new insights into the Bahá’í teachings and their relevance to the needs of society, and to attract the investigation of the Faith by thoughtful people from all backgrounds. Far from being a diversion from the worldwide effort to advance the process of entry by troops, Bahá’í scholarship can be a powerful reinforcement to that endeavour and a valuable source of new enquirers.” (Department of the Secretariat, 24 April 2008)

Real knowledge should be generated by the world as a whole, not by a select few. The House writes:

“To read the writings of the Faith and to strive to obtain a more adequate understanding of the significance of Bahá'u'lláh's stupendous Revelation are obligations laid on every one of His followers.  All are enjoined to delve into the ocean of His Revelation and to partake, in keeping with their capacities and inclinations, of the pearls of wisdom that lie therein.

“…Access to knowledge is the right of every human being, and participation in its generation, application and diffusion a responsibility that all must shoulder in the great  enterprise of building a prosperous world civilization--each individual according to his or her talents and abilities.  Justice demands universal participation.” (Ridván 2010 Message)

Real understanding of the Bahá’í Faith requires only love and sincerity, not university education. Bahá'u'lláh writes:

“Heed not the idle contention of those who maintain that the Book and verses thereof can never be a testimony unto the common people, inasmuch as they neither grasp their meaning nor appreciate their value… Such contention is utterly fallacious and inadmissible. It is actuated solely by arrogance and pride. Its motive is to lead the people astray from the Ridván of divine good-pleasure and to tighten the reins of their authority over the people. And yet, in the sight of God, these common people are infinitely superior and exalted above their religious leaders who have turned away from the one true God. 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!” (Bahá'u'lláh, The Kitab-i-Iqan Book of Certitude, pp. 210-2011)

Thus scholarship ultimately depends only upon “purity of heart, chastity of soul, and freedom of spirit”. None of us are perfect, and we all strive to attain this exalted goal. But let us reflect on the fact that scholarship is not the domain of the few, but the many. Real Bahá’í scholarship does not accept the superiority of material knowledge. Rather, it acknowledges divine revelation and is informed by spiritual teachings. It does not question the teachings, but applies them to reality, upholds and defends them. While tolerating differences of opinion, Bahá’í scholars are quick to uphold Bahá’í teachings. I believe we must join together in unity, not endless arguments and disputes over points of belief. I will end with this quote:

“O people of God! Righteous men of learning who dedicate themselves to the guidance of others and are freed and well guarded from the promptings of a base and covetous nature are, in the sight of Him Who is the Desire of the world, stars of the heaven of true knowledge. It is essential to treat them with deference. They are indeed fountains of soft-flowing water, stars that shine resplendent, fruits of the blessed Tree, exponents of celestial power, and oceans of heavenly wisdom. Happy is he that followeth them. Verily such a soul is numbered in the Book of God, the Lord of the mighty Throne, among those with whom it shall be well. (Tablets of Bahá'u'lláh Revealed after the Kitab-i-Aqdas, pp. 96-97)


I take my blog posts very seriously. There are not enough positive blogs about the Bahá’í Faith out there, and this is one more attempt to give a positive, accurate explanation of Bahá’í principles. Comments such as those of P---s below are unwelcome on my blog. While I have defended myself from two very negative posts by P---s (not much really needs to be said about such misconceptions), I do not welcome comments from individuals who criticise me personally or attack Bahá’í principles. There are some individuals who welcome criticism of all kinds, and that is there business. I do not welcome personal criticism at all. None of us are perfect, but personal criticism is unhelpful and pointless.

Tuesday 8 June 2010

Bahá’í Audio Books—Spreading the Word of God

For thousands of years, the spoken word has been the basis of religion. The ancient Jewish scriptures were memorised by generations of hereditary priests. Only part of the Torah was written down before the Babylonian conquest. The Qur’ān was primarily a chanted text, passed down orally from one generation to the next. Small fragments of the Qur’ān were written down on bones and leaves, but it was under the initiative of ‘Uthmān that the text was compiled in one volume. Nevertheless, the oral tradition continued and the various “readings” of the Qur’ān were passed from one ear to the next. The Vedas were also passed down orally. Now, we come to the Bábí and Bahá’í sacred writings. Were they also oral texts? Indeed they were. From the very first moment, the Báb chanted the Qayyúmu’l-Asmá’, even as He wrote it simultaneously with His pen. Later on, He had an amanuensis who would write down what the Báb uttered. Bahá’u’lláh did write by hand at the beginning of His ministry, but later relied on an amanuensis as well, especially after His half-brother, Mírzá Yahyá, attempted to murder Him with poison. The effects of Yahyá’s perfidy left Bahá’u’lláh with a shaky hand for the rest of His life (though He did use that hand to write His own Testament, the Kitábu ‘Ahdí).

The spoken word is primal. In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God. Those are the words of John (1:1). The Logos is the Primal Will of God that has existed for all time. While the Essence of God is utterly remote and inaccessible, He brought forth the Primal Will as the Agent that brought creation into being and speaks to us through Manifestations. It is this Eternal Logos, the Word of God, uttered in the time before time, in the beginning that hath no beginning, the everlasting “Kun” (Be!) and it is. It is this Primal Will whose existence the philosophers have proved through rational arguments, while God Himself is above such arguments, residing in the highest Kingdom, above the reach of even the Manifestations of God themselves. While it is not a literal word in the same sense as our human words, we are mirrors of the divine Reality and through human speech we can mirror forth the divine speech of God Himself.

The spoken word is thus a shadow of the Divine process of speaking, the creative utterance that generates all things. Speech is creative, even in human society. It is the basis of human communication, law, education, spiritual teaching, and relationships. While animals can communicate in a basic way, human speech is a remarkable sign of the potency of our souls, which distinguish us from animals (though in earlier stages our animal-like forms had not yet acquired the capacity, just as the embryo in the womb is still in development). Bahá’u’lláh says: “Consider the rational faculty with which God hath endowed the essence of man. Examine thine own self, and behold how thy motion and stillness, thy will and purpose, thy sight and hearing, thy sense of smell and power of speech, and whatever else is related to, or transcendeth, thy physical senses or spiritual perceptions, all proceed from, and owe their existence to, this same faculty.” (Baha'u'llah, Gleanings from the Writings of Baha'u'llah, p. 163) Speech, which is a manifestation of the uniquely human power of reason, is also the means by which we should spread the Faith of God and establish the new world civilization of Bahá’u’lláh. He writes: “We have ordained that complete victory should be achieved through speech and utterance, that Our servants throughout the earth may thereby become the recipients of divine good.” (Bahá’u’lláh, Tablets of Bahá'u'lláh Revealed after the Kitab-i-Aqdas, pp. 197-198)

While the spoken word can be as much a “smouldering fire” as it can be a fount of wisdom, I believe its importance cannot be underestimated. It is a duty of Bahá’ís, for instance, not merely to read the Writings to oneself, but to “recite” them out loud. Bahá’u’lláh says: “Recite ye the verses of God every morn and eventide. Whoso faileth to recite them hath not been faithful to the Covenant of God and His Testament, and whoso turneth away from these holy verses in this Day is of those who throughout eternity have turned away from God. Fear ye God, O My servants, one and all.” (Bahá’u’lláh, The Kitab-i-Aqdas: The Most Holy Book, v. 149, p. 73) It is also a duty of parents to teach their children to recite verses out loud in Bahá’í Houses of Worship: “Teach your children the verses revealed from the
heaven of majesty and power, so that, in most melodious tones, they may recite the Tablets of the All-Merciful in the alcoves within the Mashriqu'l-Adhkárs” (The Kitab-i-Aqdas: The Most Holy Book, v. 150, p. 73)

I have been interested in making audio recordings for quite some time used to make recordings of some of my own stories on cassette tapes back when I lived in America. When I discovered LibriVox back in 2007, the first two books I decided to record were Dr. Esperanto’s International Language, a translation of Dr. Ludwik Zamenhof’s Unua Libro (First Book) on the international auxiliary language, Esperanto AND Isabella Brittingham’s The Revelation of Baha-ullah in a Sequence of Four Lessons. The latter was one of the earliest English books on the Faith and there was no standard way of spelling Bahá’u’lláh at the time (Baha’o’llah was also common because Iranians pronounce the Arabic short u like o). If you don’t know already, LibriVox is a wonderful project to record every book (yes every book) in the public domain. There are already countless thousands of scanned and transcribed books available at Gutenberg and the Internet Archive. However, reading books on a computer screen is tiresome and scrolling through pdf scans of 19th century works difficult. LibriVox volunteers bring these books to life by creating public domain recordings that anyone can download for free, copy, distribute and share—completely legally. There are already 3,000 books in the LibriVox catalogue, most of which are in English.

There are a few places where you can find free Bahá’í audiobooks. There are some available at the Bahá’í Audio Readings RepositoryBahá’í Study Centre (is this link not working now?) and Voices Divine .  You can find Arabic recordings of the Most Holy Book here. There are also a few places where you can buy professional Bahá’í audiobooks, such as Hear the Writings.com and the Bahá’í Service for the Blind. Though not in audio format, Bahá’í eBooks Publications is also interesting. Nevertheless, the best place for Bahá’ís who want to create new audiobooks is LibriVox. LibriVox allows volunteers to set up projects to record any book they want, as long as it is public domain in the United States (published before 1923). There are many Bahá’í books which are public domain, including all the original Arabic and Persian writings of the Báb, Bahá’u’lláh and ‘Abdu’l-Bahá. Shoghi Effendi’s writings are not yet in the public domain however. Nevertheless, there is great potential for Bahá’ís to get involved and record early English works as well as Persian and Arabic Bahá’í writings. Anyone who has a voice can get involved in LibriVox. You don’t have to be a technical whizz or a professional voice artist. Everyone is welcome and no one will judge you based on your reading style or accent. LibriVox needs more Bahá’ís and everyone can help either by recording or proof listening.

I have already recorded several Bahá’í works, which you can download and listen to:

The Bahai Revelation by Thornton Chase
In Galilee by Thornton Chase
The Revelation of Baha-ullah in a Sequence of Four Lessons by Isabella D. Brittingham
The Arabic Hidden Words (an early translation) by Bahá’u’lláh
The Persian Hidden Words (an early translation) by Bahá’u’lláh

These were collaborative projects:

An Ode by Táhirih
Ode to Bahá’u’lláh by Nabíl-i-A'zam
New Year Greeting by Louise R. Waite

The following projects are in progress:

Talks by Abdul Baha Given in Paris by ‘Abdu’l-Bahá ‘Abbás (solo project, but proof listener needed)
A Year Amongst the Persians by E. G. Browne (a group project, please volunteer!!!)

We do need volunteers for A Year Amongst the Persians and I urge any Bahá’ís reading this to jump in straight away and record. You’ll enjoy the experience and learn a lot along the way. In conclusion, there is much to be done to advance the cause of Bahá’í Audio Books and your help is needed. We are a grassroots Faith and the creation of Bahá’í audio books can result from grassroots action. Let’s do this!