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 He’s still planning to make an official response to my previous post are all adjectives simplistic and outdated, which he has submitted to his Auxiliary Board member for review.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)


  1. Hello. Do you have reference(s) for this statement: "There are those who would argue that we don’t have to accept the position of the House, because it can change..."? The primary source(s) might be of interest since such an argument seems contrary to basic teachings on the House. Or by "would argue", are you speculating about something that has not yet happened? Best wishes.

  2. Hi,

    I can't give you a reference because it is an individual who made that claim on a discussion list which does not allow forwarding. So I cannnot give you the exact quote or the name of the individual. Suffice it to say, however, that this is a real position maintained by some. And you are right, it is contrary to the basic teachings on the House.

  3. In essence those who would attempt to label Baha'i's or Baha'i Institutions from the point of view current or even historical political definitions are really attempting to inject pure politics into the Faith. It is about decent with the real purpose of attempting to garner political power. Creating change is always about seeking political power. Because it is thought that only through political power can change take place.

    It is clear this flies in the face of the Divine sys Baha'u'llah has conceived. Who's main aim is to empower the people to submit to Gods Will. Unfortunately it is short sighted to think that to submit to Gods Will is somehow not empowerment.