Mirza Abdu'l-Fadl's thesis
In my last instalment, I introduced the concept of propositional inerrancy. The concept is that a person who is propositionally inerrant can never be wrong about anything. I argued, using John Hatcher's article as evidence, that mainstream Baha'is believe, or are encouraged to believe, that the central figures of the faith as well as the House of Justice are propositionally inerrant.
I want to look at propositional inerrancy some more here. This time I will outline Mirza Abu'l-Fadl's thesis about the inerrancy of the prophets and scripture. As I understand it, his thesis is that the prophets cannot be relied upon as factually correct in matters such as history and science. I think this thesis contradicts mainstream beliefs about infallibility. But, unlike scholars of today, Abu'l-Fadl was protected by Abdu'l-Baha, who told the community that Abu'l-Fadl was a man of great learning and everyone should listen to him. So it didn't matter if Abu'l-Fadl said seemingly controversial things, the community assumed they were consistent with Baha'i teachings anyway.
The argument I will consider here is found in Miracles and Metaphors (Kalimat Press, 1981, trans Juan Cole) pages 7-16. These pages contain a short essay Abu'l-Fadl wrote in answer to the following question: "Shaykh Nuru'd-Din al-Hindi asked our belief concerning Noah's age. Did he live 950 years as revealed in the Holy Qur'an, or does this have another meaning?" This raises questions about the inerrancy of scripture. Did people really live that long back then? Abu'l-Fadl begins his essay by pointing out that there are two views on this matter, the religious one and the scientific one. He briefly states the religious view and then outlines the scientific view at length. Gradually his discussion merges into his final conclusion, which is that historians should not rely on the scriptures for knowledge about historical events. I'll give an outline of the argument here.
The religious view: "whoever believes in the truth of the mission of the Prophet Muhammad, and believes that the Holy Qur'an is the Book of God revealed from heaven, necessarily accepts the validity of everything contained in that noble book. He acknowledges the truth of whatever was revealed therein, whether or not it accords with the understanding of the people…" (p7)
The scientific view: "no scholarly investigator will accept the authority of any statements unless he can determine their original sources and the degree to which these are reliable and trustworthy… [The Buddhist, Hindu, Zoroastrian and Hebrew] historical traditions differ irreconcilably in their concepts, contain the diverse beliefs of their peoples, exhibit a huge variance in chronology, and clearly differ as to the names and events they mention." (p8)
Continuing his discussion on the scientific view, Abu'l-Fadl makes some important statements of principle, which provide a rule of thumb on how to look at scripture and what to expect from it. He quotes two traditions about Muhammad: "We, the concourse of Prophets, were sent to address people according to the capacity of their minds." and "Speak to the people of that with which they are familiar; do you wish God and His Messenger to be called liars?" (p9) One must conclude from this, he says, that the historian cannot rely on Qur'an verses and traditions for historical facts. Abu'l-Fadl then outlines the principles at work here:
"It is clear that the prophets and Manifestations of the Cause of God were sent to guide the nations, to improve their characters, and to bring the people nearer to their Source and ultimate Goal. They were not sent as historians, astronomers, philosophers, or natural scientists. Their position in the world of creation is like that of the heart in the body: it has a universal position with a general effect. The position of the learned in the world of earthly dominion is like that of a specific organ. That is, they have a particular position and a special effect. Therefore, the prophets have indulged the people in regard to their historical notions, folk stories, and scientific principles, and have spoken to them according to these. They conversed as was appropriate to their audience and hid certain realities behind the curtain of allusion." (p9)
I take from the above that the prophets bring us a type of knowledge that is different to factual knowledge about the world. The prophets teach us principles for governance, for moral conduct, and for how to draw near to God. They teach spiritual principles, which have a global and general effect. They do not bring us specific knowledge about the world – they are not 'scientists' in the broadest sense of the term or even philosophers. Instead, they go along with what the people of their day believe on these matters, using it as a basis on which to illustrate and teach the spiritual principles they do wish to convey. So what are we to make of such things as the stories of Adam, Satan and Noah? Abu'l-Fadl explains that they are "realities" (p10); in other words, they are metaphors that teach us about spiritual realities such as resurrection, renewal, punishment, appointed times, allotted times and the like. We should read these stories figuratively and not take them as historical fact. This doesn't rule out the possibility that a prophet is right in fact, but it does mean that prophetic writings cannot be relied on to be factually correct because there is always the possibility that they are intended as metaphor.
This theory is consistent with the remark Muhammad is reported to have made when he was wrong about taking the low ground position for a battle and about not letting the date farmers artificially fertilise the date trees. He said: 'You are more knowledgeable about your world.' He was acknowledging their expertise in their specific areas of knowledge about the world.
There is a good example of what Abu'l-Fadl is saying in Baha'u'llah's writings. This was pointed out by Juan Cole in his article "Problems of Chronology in Baha'u'llah's Tablet of Wisdom", which appeared in the Spring 1979 issue of World Order on pages 24-39. In this article, Juan discusses Baha'u'llah's statement in the Tablet of Wisdom that:
"Empedocles, who distinguished himself in philosophy, was a contemporary of David, while Pythagoras lived in the days of Solomon, son of David, and acquired Wisdom from the treasury of prophethood. It is he who claimed to have heard the whispering sound of the heavens and to have attained the station of the angels. In truth thy Lord will clearly set forth all things, if He pleaseth. Verily, He is the Wise, the All-Pervading." (Baha'u'llah: Tablets of Baha'u'llah, p145)
In the article, Juan shows that the two statements 'Empedocles was a contemporary of David' and 'Pythagoras lived in the days of Solomon' are drawn from Muslim historians, particularly Shahrastani, who said in his Religious Communities and Creeds (pp30-31):
"[Empedocles] was a contemporary of David the prophet, peace be upon him. He went to him and received knowledge from him. And he studied with Luqman the Wise and obtained wisdom from him."
"[Pythagoras] lived in the days of Solomon the Prophet, the son of David, peace be upon them, and acquired Wisdom from the treasury of prophethood. … He practised self-discipline until he reached the point where he heard the whispering sounds of the heavens and reached the station of the angels."
As Juan points out, phrases used by Baha'u'llah also appear in Shahrastani's texts in identical wording: "was a contemporary of David", "lived in the days of Solomon", "acquired wisdom from the treasury of prophethood", "heard the whispering sound of the heavens" and attained "the station of the angels". Therefore, it is almost certain that Baha'u'llah was using Shahrastani's text as a source for his information.
However, as Juan shows in the article, the idea that Empedocles was a contemporary of David and Pythagoras a contemporary of Solomon is not historically accurate. Modern dating has determined that David and Solomon lived in the 10th century BC and Muslim historians have them living even earlier, in the 12th century BC. However, "all major Muslim sources without exception agree that Pythagoras and Empedocles lived sometime in the sixth and fifth centuries BC." (p34) So it isn't feasible that Empedocles and Pythagoras were contemporary with David and Solomon.
This is an excellent example of Abu'l-Fadl's principle that the prophets go along with what the people of their day knew and, for this reason, their writings cannot be relied upon for factual information. But, as argued above, factual inaccuracy does not detract from the fact that Baha'u'llah is pointing to a sound spiritual reality. Here his point is that the Greeks derived their knowledge from the prophets. It is a fundamental principle of Baha'u'llah's revelation that all knowledge comes from the prophets, so the Greeks should be no exception. There is no doubt that the Greeks lived after the time of the Hebrew prophetic tradition and must have benefited from it in some way.
Juan's concluding comments about this factual error in Baha'u'llah's writings help us to understand how it is possible for such errors to appear in divinely revealed scripture:
"I have reached the conclusion that statements that are factually inaccurate can become embedded in divinely revealed texts. In the Baha'i Faith, as in other religions, however, there is a natural desire on the part of adherents to hold that statements contained in Holy Writ are inerrant and infallible. … No modern thinker can fail to be intensely aware of the historically conditioned nature of all human knowledge and thus of all human statements of that knowledge. Insofar as a divinely revealed text is nevertheless communicated in a human language, employing human concepts in a particular human social milieu, the statements therein are inevitably historically conditioned." (pp38-39)