Saturday, 11 October 2008

Baha'u'llah's wit

This week I had reason to reread sections of Ustad Muhammad Ali Salmani's memoirs about Baha'u'llah. Salmani was Baha'u'llah's barber and so had the priviledge of getting quite close to him. He was also a man who didn't suffer fools gladly and was straight about the way he saw things. As a result, he quickly cottoned on to the fact that Baha'u'llah's half-brother, Azal, was an unpleasant character to say the least. Salmani's first one-to-one encounter with Azal was at a stopover on the journey to Istanbul, where the party needed to cross the Tigris river. Salmani offered, and Abdu'l-Baha agreed, that Salmani would cross the river first so he could receive the luggage as it arrived. Salmani got into a boat, and there happened to be one other person in the boat as well. This person was Azal, but Salmani didn't know who he was then. This is the fascinating conversation that ensued. It gives us a good idea of Azal's personality as well as Salmani's:

'[Azal] said, "Where are you from?" (He would speak very roughly, and it was hateful to hear him.)
I said, "From Isfahan."
He said, "Why did you get in this boat? Who gave you permission?"
I said, "I am here by permission of a great Personage."
He said, "Now that you have come here without anyone's leave, what would you do if I gave you two or three blows with my club?" (He had a cudgel in his hand.)
I said, "If I were a mild-mannered person I would forgive you. But if I come to any harm from that club, I will take it away from you and give you such a thrashing that you will forget all about how brave you were."
This infuriated him. Anyhow, he said nothing more, and the boat reached the other side.' (p 29)

You are left with the impression that Azal was ready to appease his appetite for abuse and domination once he had established in his own mind that Salmani had no protector.

This story gives you an idea of what a gem these memoirs are. They give us real insight into the way the believers around Baha'u'llah interacted and how Bah'u'llah fitted into the social network. And with Salmani being such a straight talker, you feel you're getting an accurate picture.

One of the things that comes through in the account is that Baha'u'llah had a dry, ironic sense of humour. I'll never forget being shocked to my boots by one remark Salmani reports Baha'u'llah made in jest. It was made at the time when Baha'u'llah had been ordered to leave Istanbul for Edirne. The account makes it clear that for a while Baha'u'llah was adamant that he would not go. He was determined to stand his ground and let the consequences be what they may. He was happy to die for refusing to go but did not believe that the authorities would kill him. It was at this time that the following occurred:

'Then Shamsi Bey paid an official call and declared on behalf of the government: "You are ordered to Edirne."
Baha'u'llah categorically stated: "We refuse."
After Shamsi Bey had gone, Baha'u'llah came out and said to the friends, "Be confident. Nothing bad will happen." Smiling, He added: "And anyway, what could be the harm of it if I should give them two or three of you no-goods to put to death?" And then He left.' (p39)

As it turned out, Baha'u'llah relented and agreed to go to Edirne because Azal and his allies Siyyid Muhammad and Haji Mirza Ahmad kept at him about it so much. But Baha'u'llah was bitterly disappointed. He saw the situation as a God-send for proclaiming the Faith. He said: "If, in Istanbul, Azal had allowed it to happen, there would have been a wonderful proclamation of the Cause of God. Had they killed us, this would have spread the Faith far and wide, and had they not killed us - and they would not have - this too would have widely proclaimed it." (p40-1)

Salmani gives another small example of Baha'u'llah's wit. In Edirne, Baha'u'llah had wintered over in his own house but now, with the spring, was paying a visit to the friends in their house.

'When the weather turned beautiful and we were on the threshold of spring, He came to the believers' lodging one day to express His consideration for us, and His loving care. That day, a bird was singing in our tree, and He commented: "Better get him something for his throat - he isn't doing too well."' (p43)

These are just a couple of examples of Baha'u'llah's wit. There are many others in the various accounts available from those who knew Baha'u'llah well. Salmani's account is available from Kalimat Press and Amazon.

MY MEMORIES OF BAHÁ'U'LLÁH, By Ustád Muhammad-'Alíy-i Salmání, the Barber, translated by Marzieh Gail, 1982.

Saturday, 4 October 2008

A culture of learning and intellectual pride

Hushmand Fatheazam, former member of the Universal House of Justice, presents the 26th Hasan M. Balyuzi Memorial Lecture at the conference of the North American Association for Baha’i Studies.

This morning I read the blurb from the Baha'i World News Service about the recent North American Baha'i Studies conference held in San Diego, which finished on 1 September. Hushmand Fatheazam, former member of the Universal House of Justice, gave the Hasan M. Balyuzi Memorial Lecture on the subject "Some Observations on the Scope and Value of Baha'i Scholarship." The news release tells us that Mr. Fatheazam gave the following advice to Baha'i scholars:

"While underlining the vital contributions of Baha'i scholarship to the development of the Baha'i Faith and the progress of society, he cautioned against the temptations of intellectual pride that scholars from all traditions have historically been susceptible to, and urged Baha'is to pursue paths of scholarship with the utmost humility."

This is a favourite theme of those high up in the Baha'i administration: the curse of intellectual pride on the part of Baha'i scholars. Not long before my expulsion, I was invited along to a meeting at my local centre, which was dedicated to this theme and was based on a compilation on Baha'i scholarship and its pitfalls by the House of Justice.

But as I read the above advice, reported as given from one of impeccable community credentials and assured salvation, new thoughts come to me. Why is it that he and his colleagues never apply this theme of intellectual pride to leaders of religion? The scholars are invariably singled out and cautioned, as if they're poised to run amok like Baha'i youth at a summer school. But never a word about leaders of religion. It strikes me as a case of the pot calling the kettle black.

The theme of pride and, indeed, "veils of glory" as it relates to leaders of religion, far from being an obscure idea, is one Baha'u'llah emphasised, and gets a lot of airing in the writings. For example:

"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." (Kitab-i-Iqan, p 15, emphasis mine)

And again:

"But as they [the Christians] failed to recognize the accents of God and the divine mysteries and holy allusions enshrined in that which flowed from the tongue of Muhammad, and as they neglected to examine the matter in their own hearts, and followed instead those priests of error who have hindered the progress of the people in past dispensations and who will continue to do so in future cycles, they were thus veiled from the divine purpose, failed to quaff from the celestial streams, and deprived themselves of the presence of God, the Manifestation of His Essence, and the Dayspring of His eternity." (Gems of Divine Mysteries, paragraph 54, emphasis mine)

The theme in the writings that leaders of religion fall prey to intellectual pride, and lead people away from recognising the manifestation, is not discussed at Baha'i conferences. Instead, the evidence is that Baha'i leaders of religion persist in reminding scholars about their uncontrollable egos, sending scholars scuttling into dark corners lest they inadvertently catch their leaders' unwelcome attention. Given this climate of 'learning', I shouldn't think there was any danger a scholar worthy of the name would raise the subject of leaders of religion going bad - unless, of course, it was to argue that the House of Justice isn't a leader of religion, or is infallible and therefore not subject to the failings of those Baha'u'llah identified. Or perhaps the matter has been put to rest by the Department of the Secretariat in a letter to an individual: "There is nothing in the Writings to support the view that the opposition or persecution [of the next manifestation] will be instigated or inflicted by the Universal House of Justice." Letter from the Department of the Secretariat, 1997