Thursday, 26 April 2007

Newspaper article mentions my expulsion

In mid-August last year, I received an email out of the blue from a journalist from the New Zealand Press Association (usually referred to as the NZPA). In the message, he said that he would be writing a feature article on the Baha'is in New Zealand and related topics. He asked if he could talk to me to find out my opinions. I wrote and agreed to be interviewed. Without realising it, I assumed that the journalist - his name was Reg Ponniah - had already spoken to the NSA or its media people. I didn't know what had led him to me, but assumed it was my website.

As it turned out, when Reg and I got talking, I found out that he had not yet spoken to NSA! He contacted me first because he'd been looking on the Internet for information about "Baha'i" and "New Zealand" and my name persistently came up. He said he'd been inspired to write the article in the wake of the hostilities between Israel and Lebanon, in which the Baha'i gardens had been a target. Reg didn't understand that I was not involved with the administration of the faith. So the interview began with my explaining to him how the administration worked and what it meant that I was 'disenrolled'. I also made it clear that I was a believer and gave him my views on my disenrollment and the state of the Baha'i community. It all went very well. Reg said he'd talk to NSA and then get back to me.

I didn't hear from him again, but his article appeared in Wellington's Dominion Post on January 4 2007, headed "Isles of calm in a hateful world". For copyright reasons, I can't quote the whole article. The angle of it is the persecution of the Baha'is. It describes the New Zealand Baha'i community as "thriving and vibrant" and says that its "followers number about 4000 in New Zealand". The 2006 census puts it at 2772 and declining. See Steve's figures on Baha'is Online. Here's the passage that refers to my disenrollment.

"Ms Mahon [NSA secretary] said the Baha'i community was shown on Triangle TV in Auckland recently educating the public about the faith.

"Ours is a unifying message. We accept all religions of all peoples." Baha'is hoped to bring down religious and racial prejudices.

The religion is not without its detractors, however. A long-time Baha'i member said she was unceremoniously kicked out of the faith without any explanation.

Alison Marshall, a lawyer in Dunedin and member of the Baha'i faith for 20 years, said she was "disenrolled" by the National Spiritual Assembly, the NZ Baha'i movement's administrative body, without any satisfactory reason.

But Ms Mahon said Ms Marshall had indicated by her articles on the Internet that her beliefs were not aligned with Baha'i principles. "There are certain requirements followers are obliged to accept. She was not prepared to do that."

Ms Marshall said she became a Baha'i in New Zealand in 1980. "For the next 20 years, I was a loyal and active member of the religion, until 2000." During that time she has had differences with the way the administration was run.

When she was expelled as a member, Ms Marshall took the Baha'is to court. However, the court decided there was no case to answer and that the Baha'i religion was entitled to make its ruling on her membership.

Three people had been expelled from the movement in the past decade: a Canadian in 1997, Ms Marshall in 2000 and another New Zealander last year.

Ms Mahon said every faith had its dissenters."

Friday, 20 April 2007

Inner and outer unity

I know of a couple of places where Baha'u'llah mentions the concept of a person being inwardly and outwardly united.

"No two men can be found who may be said to be outwardly and inwardly united. The evidences of discord and malice are apparent everywhere, though all were made for harmony and union." Gleanings, CXII

"Perhaps they [the divine friends] will visit the illumined beauty of the pure, radiant and sanctified friend in the land of love, detachment, amiability and exaltation. Thus would they receive the lights dawning from the morn of his brow and the effulgence of the perspicuous day, to at least the extent that they would be enabled to unite their inner and outer selves... Now, they must put forth their utmost effort and give their unswerving attention, so that their inward secrets not be contrary to their overt behavior, nor their outward deeds at variance with their inner mysteries." Tablet of the Holy Mariner - Persian section

In Tablet of the Son, Baha'u'llah explains that what's unique to the Baha'i revelation is the appearance of 'virtue'. Yes, virtue has appeared before in previous dispensations, but in this dispensation, it has been given a new importance:

"Note that what appeared was virtues, of which all remained ignorant. It would be the indisputable truth to say that all of these virtues were hidden and concealed in the scriptures and that in the dispensation of the Point of the Bayan, the veiled faces of meaning came out from behind the curtain in the chambers of the divine verses. And if it were said that what went before was a concise mention, whereas thereafter came one who clarified and spoke in detail, that would be the truth, in which there is not doubt. If it were said that what became manifest in the new revelation had not been apparent in previous dispensations - though all are wondrous and new - this saying is also correct and complete." Tablet of the Son, para 8

Other places where I've seen Baha'u'llh underlining this theme about virtue is in the Hidden Words:

"O MY FRIENDS! Quench ye the lamp of error, and kindle within your hearts the everlasting torch of divine guidance. For ere long the assayers of mankind shall, in the holy presence of the Adored, accept naught but purest virtue and deeds of stainless holiness." Persian Hidden Words, no 35

"O CHILDREN OF ADAM! Holy words and pure and goodly deeds ascend unto the heaven of celestial glory. Strive that your deeds may be cleansed from the dust of self and hypocrisy and find favor at the court of glory; for ere long the assayers of mankind shall, in the holy presence of the Adored One, accept naught but absolute virtue and deeds of stainless purity. This is the day-star of wisdom and of divine mystery that hath shone above the horizon of the divine will. Blessed are they that turn thereunto." Persian Hidden Words, no 69

And let's not forget the all-important first passage of the Aqdas, which states that our deeds must be consistent with our claims to faith:

"The first duty prescribed by God for His servants is the recognition of Him Who is the Dayspring of His Revelation and the Fountain of His laws, Who representeth the Godhead in both the Kingdom of His Cause and the world of creation. Whoso achieveth this duty hath attained unto all good; and whoso is deprived thereof hath gone astray, though he be the author of every righteous deed. It behoveth everyone who reacheth this most sublime station, this summit of transcendent glory, to observe every ordinance of Him Who is the Desire of the world. These twin duties are inseparable. Neither is acceptable without the other. Thus hath it been decreed by Him Who is the Source of Divine inspiration."

My understanding of the above quotes is this: that in the Baha'i revelation, the unity of our inner and outer selves is crucial. Hypocrisy is rejected and those who are motivated by it will find themselves powerless to achieve their purposes. There is no excuse any more, we must truly purify our inner and outer selves of all but God.

Why am I mentioning this? When the US was planning to invade Iraq, I argued that the whole thing was folly because George Bush and his allies were hypocrites. They talked about democracy, freedom and so on, but only thought of these universal goods for the people in their own priviledged countries. They didn't act with the principle of the oneness of humanity in their hearts. And I believe from the above quotes that Baha'u'llah has rendered hypocrites powerless in this Day. No matter what resources they throw at it, they can't achieve their purpose.

The principle of inner and outer unity also came to my mind in a related context - the business of the gunman who shot the students and staff at Virginia Tech University. The details that have surfaced about the gunman show that, on the inside, the guy had an inner life dominated by violence. And it's clear to everyone that this inner life lead to him killing people. But, as a society, we tend to downplay the importance of our inner lives and their effect on our outer lives. We allow violent video games, violent movies, and images of violent crime and war to flood our lives and yet reject the idea this might have any impact on our outer lives. In general, people would be hard pressed to take seriously Baha'u'llah's call to purify our inner selves of all that stuff.

The Virginia massacre also got me thinking about the way the 'war on terror' has been conceptualised. What is the source of terror? Generally, it is thought to be people who 'hate our freedoms', or who have genuine grievances against the West, or who have a different cultural and religious background to those in the West and feel their own way of life is threatened. Critics have pointed out that the US is a terrorist state. Those on the receiving end of the Iraq invasion couldn't help but be terrified. After all, it was called 'shock and awe' for a reason. But it seems to me that the source of terror isn't a group of people from any particular religion or culture; it's our inner selves. That's the source of terror. If we don't have inner selves dominated by feelings of hatred and images of violence, then we won't kill people.

What struck me about the video footage of the gunman - and it was no doubt not lost on anyone else - was the amount he'd learned from terrorist groups that had filmed murder of hostages and posted it on the Internet. Authorities appear to have rejected the idea that the massacre was a terrorist attack, but is that the right conclusion? The gunman is as much a terrorist as anyone blowing things up in Baghdad. A 'terrorist' is a universal phenomenon; it's any person with a sense of grievance and an inner life crazy enough to inspire massacre. What's to stop people everywhere with a grievance from rising up and causing havoc?

If we want to 'save' ourselves from 'terrorists', then we need to focus on the principle Baha'u'llah has set for us. We need to start by cleaning up our own inner lives, not by accusing others of being evil and assuming ourselves to be lily white. And we need to create a society with citizens that don't ever think about violent things.

Happy Ridvan!

Tuesday, 10 April 2007

The view around another corner

It's my birthday today; I'm 48. What has Baha'u'llah given me for my birthday? The view around another corner.

I've been grappling with the issue of appropriate speech for a few years now. But today I felt I had the issue reconciled within me. I've done alot of changing over the past few years and this has caused me to look at the way I've spoken about issues concerning the Faith and the community. With my new view on things, I came to feel that I needed to moderate my speech when I spoke on these issues. In addition, I came to feel that the issues that used to consume me, such as infallibility and women on the House, didn't matter as much as I thought they did. And so I stopped talking about these issues for two to three years. But things have changed again - hence the new view.

One principle that is fundamental to speech is this one: to speak with words that are like milk. Baha'u'llah says this in a couple of places; for example:

"Among the helpers of God is discourse. In this greatest of dispensations, deeds and ethics are the armies of God and are busy aiding him. If discourse is delivered in a measured fashion, it is a divine mercy. If it goes to excess, it becomes destructive. In the tablets, we have advised all to employ a sort of discourse that has the characteristics of milk hidden within it, and to nurture the children of the world with it so that they might be brought to the age of maturity. In every station, discourse becomes apparent by virtue of some quality and shines because of some impact. The scent of good or bad wafts from it." Baha'u'llah, Tablet of Unity

After meditating on this principle over the last few years, I decided that I needed to pull my head in as regards my speech. As a result, I have toned myself right down and tried to avoid exchanges that I know will get me going and cause me to say something I'll regret. I've also stopped feeling compelled to engage with people who disagree with me. I just can't be bothered anymore. If a person has another view than me, then that's fine by me. I notice that others can't stop attacking or engaging those who disagree with them. Being able to leave people alone is a detachment state that takes some working on.

But Baha'u'llah also says in the quote above that discourse is a thing that aids God. So, it isn't necessary to fall completely silent about things. We each have a unique perspective and it's right for us to share that, so long as it is done appropriately. I often think about the way Baha'u'llah did things. In the Iqan, you hear the way he used to talk to those who'd come to visit and share their interpretations on the Qur'an. More often than not, their understandings were very sad indeed. But Baha'u'llah would patiently say something like: "Have you considered looking at it this way?" But in his writings, sometimes Baha'u'llah didn't speak with works like milk! In any case, I feel that so long as one's view is delivered in a measured and rational way and backed up with the writings, then there can be no harm in it, even if others disagree with it and think you have no right to say it.

Monday, 9 April 2007

Taqlid

This entry was originally posted on my blog on May 20, 2005.

Baquia has an excellent piece on his blog called Ruhi Redux. It is a short analysis of what's wrong with Ruhi and it has a link to Tony Lee’s compelling essay, The Ruhi Problem, on the subject.

One of the points Baquia makes is that the thrust of Ruhi is 'taqlid' , which he defines as "blind and unquestioning imitation in action or belief". Taqlid is a big part of Shi'ism. Believers are expected to find a religious leader who they respect and is suitably qualified and then imitate that person's religious belief and action. This is necessary because ordinary people lack the necessary education to figure that stuff out for themselves. Baquia refers to the fact that there are explicit texts that condemn taqlid, but he does not quote any.

That got me thinking that I should post here a section from an old Talisman message by Juan Cole. In it, he pulls together a number of quotes in which Baha’u'llah condemns taqlid. I think this mini compilation is informative because Juan includes with the English the relevant phrases from the original in brackets. The result gives someone like me, who can't read the orginal, an understanding of the context for the ban on blind obedience and a better understanding of what it means. When it comes to our religious beliefs, we are not to imitate anyone - not religious authority or any 'forefather' in any form. If we do, our belief will amount to no more than an attachment to names, where we align ourselves with the name 'Baha' all the while denying its reality. To avoid this, we have to see that reality with our own eyes.

"Say: O people, act not as did the people of the Qur'an, and never surrender the reins of your insight into the hands of anyone else. Seize upon the grace proffered you in these days, and see with your own eyes." Baha’u'llah: The Surah of Sacrifice (Suratu’dh-Dhibh)

Alison

————–

Date: Tue, 12 Dec 1995 00:40:18 -0500 (EST)
From: Juan R Cole
To: talisman@i…
Subject: conscience, blind obedience, and Luther

...

2) With regard to the principle of blind obedience (taqlid) of religious authority, Baha’u'llah abrogated it. He did not abrogate it in Islam only to re-institute it in the Baha’i Faith in an even more Draconian form.

Seven Valleys, p. 5: "It is incumbent on these servants that they cleanse the heart–which is the wellspring of divine treasures–from every marking, and that they turn away from imitation (taqlid), which is following the traces of their forefathers and sires, and shut the door of friendliness and enmity upon all the people of the earth."

Gleanings LXXV: "Tear asunder, in My Name, the veils that have grievously blinded your vision, and, through the power born of your belief in the unity of God, scatter the idols of vain imitation (asnam-i taqlid)."

Gleanings p. 166: "Such men have been, and will continue to remain, the victims of blind imitation (ahl-i taqlid)."

Iqan pp. 73-74: "Consider how men have for generations been blindly imitating their fathers (bar taqlid-i aba')."

Iqan, p. 183: "Muslim divines have "blindly submitted" (taqlidan) to the truth of Muhammad, but would reject the Bab even if he gave the same answers as the former."

Iqan p. 155: "He would have preferred to suffer death than violate one letter of those superstitious forms (umur-i taqlidiyyih) and manners current amongst his people."

Baha’u'llah clearly insisted that individuals make up their own minds about religious issues, in an impartial and fair-minded way, unswayed by authorities such as their forebears or ecclesiastical figures.

...

cheers Juan Cole, History, University of Michigan