Sunday, 24 February 2008

The real Baha'u'llah

Yesterday I was interested to read a comment that appeared on Baquia's blog, which had been pointed out to me by Steve. It is written by Andrew Carter, who I interviewed for this blog last year. Back then, he was saying that he believed Baha'u'llah was a manifestation of God. But it seems that he has changed his mind. He says:

"I was once swayed by the idealism and casuistry of certain Baha’i writers who insist that Baha’u'llah was actually a teacher of inner freedom and transformation. I no longer believe this. No matter how one gilds the lily, Baha’u'llah was not a spiritual guide, but rather a religious dictator, and the religion he created expresses the thematic continuity of his authoritarianism." Andrew

This accusation that Baha'u'llah is a "religious dictator" reminded me of a similar accusation made by someone else many years ago. At that time, Juan Cole wrote an enlightening and moving defence of Baha'u'llah and posted it on H-Baha'i. I thought it would be timely, given the above, to repost that message here. A key thing that comes through for me is that the authoritarianism we see in the Baha'i community today is assumed to reflect the way Baha'u'llah was. But this isn't the case.

Date: Wed, 16 Jul 1997 11:55:34 -0400
From: jrcole@... (Juan R. I. Cole)
Subject: H-Bahai Baha'u'llah's authority

I wanted to follow up on the nature of Baha'u'llah's authority in the 19th century Baha'i community. XX has presented an image of it as absolute, and many have agreed with him. But I don't find in the historical record such a situation.

There are two sorts of lattitude I'd like to point to. The first is lattitude of relatively free thought. Because Baha'u'llah accepted Ibn al-`Arabi's and Rumi's Sufi notion of standpoint epistemology with regard to metaphysics, he did not believe there was only one right answer to any particular doctrinal question. Which answer one gave would depend on one's own "maqam" or spiritual station, and upon one's degree of spiritual discernment or "idrak." Since maqams and idrak were so numerous and disparate, in Baha'u'llah's view, he did not expect the Baha'is all to adhere to the same theological beliefs at the same time. That is why he refused to intervene in the dispute between Jamal-i Burujirdi (who insisted that Baha'u'llah was man, not God) and other prominent Baha'i teachers (some of whom saw Baha'u'llah as a manifestation of God's very essence). This tablet and Khazeh's translation is in Baha'i Studies Bulletin and also on my Web page. It is very instructive. (cf. Iqtidarat p. 219). One prominent Baha'i in Iran told Browne (I think it was Mirza Haydar `Ali Isfahani) that Baha'u'llah was just "a man, perfect in humanity." Browne also reports a good deal of wine drinking and drug use among the Baha'is, if my memory serves.

Along the same lines, in Iqtidarat, p. 100, Baha'u'llah tells the Baha'is who keep writing him with questions that *they* are the springs of his own discourse, and that they should strive to cleanse their water of idle fancies so that they can answer their questions *themselves*:

ta az shuma: khu:d dar amtha:l-i i:n masa:'il-i mas'u:lih java:bha:-yi muhkamih-'i mutqanih za:hir shavad

In this dispensation, he says, all bear the divine effulgence according to their own capacity, and all are able to discern the truths in the revealed scripture. This is an encouragement to all Baha'is without exception to develop their own midrash on the Baha'i scriptures and to try to answer questions for themselves. This is very different from the attitude of some authoritarian leaders that everything must be referred to them, and they must have the option of settling all important questions.

There are also many instances where Baha'is wrote to Baha'u'llah with local disputes about, say, the disposition of property, and he wrote back that they should consult (mushavirih) with the local community and follow the consensus that was reached. Several such letters are in the later volumes of Athar-i Qalam-i A`la (vols. 6-7).

So I would argue that Baha'u'llah farmed out a lot of authority to individuals and to local communities, and often declined to intervene decisively in disputes back in Iran. I don't see this sort of lattitude as terribly authoritarian, though I agree that later Baha'i tradition may have imagined it that way.

From another point of view, I find all sorts of evidence that the Baha'is very often ignored Baha'u'llah's advice and instructions, and did as they pleased. A very serious such instance was when, in 1872, some Baha'is in Akka came to him and said they wanted to kill Sayyid Muhammad Isfahani, the Azali who had been sent by the Ottomans to spy on the Baha'is. Baha'u'llah strictly forbade them, according to Mirza Ja`far Qazvini in the Epitome translated by Browne (Materials 54-55), but they went ahead and murdered the Azalis anyway. Baha'u'llah was very upset by all this, and sanctioned them both by refusing to intervene with the Ottoman authorities on their behalf, and by banishing them from his presence for a long time. But some of the murderers at least, such as Ustad Salmani, eventually were able to rejoin the community. My point, in any case, is that even these close companions of Baha'u'llah would not listen to him on such a serious matter!

There are many other instances of cavalier disobedience. Baha'u'llah wanted meetings back in Iran kept very small, but his emissaries reported back to him that he was regularly being ignored and that meetings of 40 and more were not uncommon. Baha'u'llah wanted the Baha'is not to bicker over doctrinal and other matters, but they went ahead and did, anyway. The historical records and the Tablets of Baha'u'llah and letters of Khadimu'llah are full of such details. Baha'u'llah even confesses at one point that his biggest headache was the 300 Baha'is living in the Akka area, who had their ups and downs (Iqtidara 26-27). Obviously, they were not causing him such grief because they were kowtowing to a despotic Prophet figure.

Very often, Baha'u'llah would respond to major disputes by telling the parties to work it out themselves, or by declining to comment (as with his non-response to the controversy caused by Jamal-i Burujirdi's plan for mass Baha'i emigration to Russia). I see him as having exercised moral suasion, as having attempted to persuade, as having sometimes issued rather stern counsels or reproaches. But his authority was only moral, and he was far more often ignored than Baha'is nowadays would like to admit. (Indeed, as time has gone on, some of his major emphases, such as standpoint epistemology and its accompanying tolerance, answering one's own questions, and the value of democracy, have been almost erased within the community, so that he is less and less a real authority and more and more just an icon to whom lip service is paid). There was a core of very devoted and sincere Baha'is, of course, who engaged in an almost court-like etiquette around Baha'u'llah. But as far as I can tell, these were a minority. One forgets the rude, the insolent, the unbalanced, the petty squabblers, the independent of mind, the wine-bibbers. One forgets that most Baha'is of the time were very lightly socialized to Baha'i values, and did a lot of dissimulating and picking and choosing. Baha'u'llah had more authority among Baha'is than did a mujtahid like Mirza Hasan Shirazi among Shi`ites, but it was authority and not power, and it probably worked practically in many of the same ways--persuasion, tacking with the wind, encouraging people to get along.


Juan Cole
U of Michigan

Be fair: are these the words of a "religious dictator"? If these reflect the characteristics of a dictator, then may we have more of them!

"By Myself, the True One, O Ali! The fire that hath inflamed the heart of Baha is fiercer than the fire that gloweth in thine heart, and His lamentation louder than thy lamentation. Every time the sin committed by any one amongst them was breathed in the Court of His Presence, the Ancient Beauty would be so filled with shame as to wish He could hide the glory of His countenance from the eyes of all men, for He hath, at all times, fixed His gaze on their fidelity, and observed its essential requisites." (Baha'u'llah: Gleanings, CXLII)