Sunday, 18 February 2007

Approaching the Qur'an

After attempting to read Saiedi's book Logos and Civilization and being forced to give up, I went looking for my next read. I needed something that would feed me spiritually and not leave me feeling like I'd strayed into an unfriendly wilderness. Yesterday, I read a good description of how I felt reading Saiedi's book and how I feel when I read much Baha'i secondary literature. The TV reviewer in the magazine, New Zealand Listener, was complaining about the marketing strategy of New Zealand's state-owned broadcaster and the way it presents the news. Her comment captures how I often feel when I read what Baha'is have written about the Faith:

"All most of us want is to get [the news] from a place that treats us like grown-ups rather than trying to brainwash us into submission." (February 17, 2007, p 71)

In my view, the cause of this didactic style in Baha'i secondary literature is that writers are focused on selling the Baha'i message rather than on sharing the beauty of the message as it is reflected in them. We are each responsible for ourselves only - on the health of our personal relationship with Baha'u'llah and on our character and deeds. We are not responsible for how others react to the message. Therefore, it's not our business to try and manipulate others to believe. And besides, doing this isn't the most effective way to influence them. "Man is the supreme talisman." Each one of us, as a believer attracted to the Blessed Beauty, is the magnet that will attract others. Our experience of attraction is what sells the message.

And so I began reading the book Approaching the Qur'an. The Early Revelations (Oregon: White Cloud Press, 1999), introduced and translated by Michael Sells. It's a good example of the sort of book that Baha'is should be writing. It's fabulous. Michael Sells appears to be one of those clever academics who can use his academic knowledge to reach ordinary people. There's no underestimating the challenge of what he has taken on with this book. He is trying to introduce the Qur'an to ordinary Westerners, who have no idea about it apart from impressions they've picked up from cultural prejudices. This is the situation the Baha'is face when trying to tell Westeners about the Faith. It's worth them examining a book that meets this challenge successfully.

In the book, Michael Sells makes it clear that he is not trying to convert people. All he is trying to do is give Western readers an idea of why the Qur'an is loved by millions of people. He explains that, in the Arabic, Qur'anic language is beautiful and poetic and has "sound visions" (p 16).

"In Qur'an schools, children memorize verses, then entire Suras. They begin with the Suras that are at the end of the Qur'an in its written form. These first revelations to Muhammad express vital existential themes in a language of great lyricisim and beauty. As the students learn these Suras, they are not simply learning something by rote, but rather interiorizing the inner rhythms, sound patterns, and textual dynamics - taking it to heart in the deepest manner." (p 11)

Sells points out that these sound visions cannot be found in current English translations of the Qur'an. "What the person who learns the Qur'an in Arabic experiences as a work of consummate power and beauty, outsiders can find difficult to grasp, confusing, and in most English translations, alienating." (p 11)

What is Michael Sells doing here? He's communicating to his readers the beauty he has found in the Qur'an as a result of his ability to read it in Arabic. His enthusiasm is contagious and when you read what he has to say, you want to examine the Qur'an in the new ways he opens up to you. You want to share with him in this wonderful thing that he has found.

Sells translates the early suras, trying to capture in the English something of the power and visual beauty of the Arabic:

"No translation can fully capture this sound vision. The translation here attempts to bring across the lyricism of the hymnic passages, a lyricism comparable to that of the Psalms or passages from the Upanishads. In the Qur'anic context, the lyricism is related to the use of oaths involving a key set of what the Qur'an considers 'signs' (aayas), clues to the mystery of reality. These signs include the patterns of day and night, male and female, odd and even, singular and plural. The Arabic construction for these oaths can be translated in a number of ways. I have used the phrase 'by the,' as in Sura 89:1-5:

By the dawn
By the nights ten
By the odd and the even
By the night as it eases away
Is there not in that an oath for the thoughtful mind" (p 16)

And so it goes on. The book contains full translations of suras 1 and 84 to 114. Sells gives the reader many insights into the Qur'an that help Baha'is understand Baha'u'llah. Perhaps I'll quote some more in my next message.

Tuesday, 6 February 2007

Logos and Civilization: my thoughts

Nader Saiedi's book Logos and Civilization. Spirit, History and Order in the Writings of Baha'u'llah came out in 2000. Up until a few weeks ago, I had avoided buying and reading it. But last year, someone recommended the chapter on the Kitab-i Badi and, on the strength of that, I bought the book.

When it arrived, I set out to read it carefully cover to cover and give it a fair reading. But I got through only the Introduction before my fears were realised. I was already disturbed by what I was reading and put the book away for a month. Then I brought it out to try again. Perhaps I was just in a bad state at the time, I thought. After that, I was able to read the first three chapters, which constitute Part I of the book, "The Dynamics of Spiritual Journey". There are three parts to the book: Part II is "The Critique of Spiritual and Historical Reason" and Part III is "The New World Order".

I'm telling you this because I want to be clear that I have not read all of the book, only Part I. By the time I got through Part I, I couldn't face any more. (Although I do still plan to read the chapter recommended to me.) I have looked through the rest of the book and believe it is fair to suggest that my concerns about Part I also apply to the other parts of the book. However, what I think are 'concerns' about the book won't be concerns for others.

I don't mean to say that Part I was wholly bad. Not at all. I learned important things from it and, for this reason, was pleased I'd persevered. Part I is about mysticism and spiritual journey, which is the subject that most interests me. Two things in particular stood out for me. The first is Saiedi's discussion on the Ontological Circle and the stages in the creating process - what he calls the "Arc of Descent" (see diagram on p 54). It has always puzzled me how the creation process works and this explained it to me.

Apparently, the Bab says that there are seven stages in the process:

1. Will
2. Determination
3. Destiny
4. Decree
5. Permission
6. Term
7. Book.

I could never understand how creation was the fruit of God's will and yet there was no relationship between God and creation. Saiedi explains by paraphrasing the Bab: "In His Sahifiy-i-Adliyyih (Book of Justice), He [the Bab] explains that God created the Will from nothing through the causation of the Will itself without any external determination, and created all other beings by the causation of the Will through the seven stages of contigency." (p56) I found Saiedi's discussion on the seven stages informative and useful and plan to discuss it again in a separate blog entry. Given that we humans are created in the likeness of God, then the way we create must be similar to the way God creates.

But I was left with mixed feelings because, although I was pleased to have learned this from the book, I was sad that I had to rely on Saiedi to inform me about what the Bab had said. This isn't a complaint about the book or its author, it is a complaint about the lack of official translations. The mass of believers don't themselves have access to the writings through good English translations. They are forced to rely on people like Saiedi who can read the writings in the original languages and tell others what's in them. I'm confident that Saiedi and other scholars with his skills do an excellent job in sharing with others what the originals say, but the mass of believers need to be able to work out their own understanding of the writings.

The other stand-out feature of Part I was Saiedi's discussion on what he termed "the spatial metaphor", as found in The Four Valleys (p80). Again, Saiedi's understanding comes from his ability to read the work in Persian and see how Baha'u'llah has used the spatial metaphor in his introductions to each of the valleys. Saiedi says that the numbering of the valleys as one, two, three and four is NOT in the original; it has been added by the translators. Therefore, the four valleys are not about progressing from one stage to the next, as in The Seven Valleys, but are four different kinds of person and spiritual journey. Saiedi explains that Baha'u'llah uses the spatial metaphor to emphasise the difference between them. The person of valley one is a long way from the beloved and the journey is about travelling closer. The person of valley two has reached the beloved's antechamber and is in awe of the beloved; the person in valley three is in the beloved's home and is attracted to the beloved; and the person in valley four has united with the beloved and is her lover.

After reading this, I was exhilarated. I thought, "Gee, this is good stuff!". But then, as I read on and as Saiedi began to argue his interpretation of it, my heart began to sink. To me, that wonderful metaphor captured it all. I won't go into the details of Saiedi's interpretation. But I'll quote the penultimate paragraph of the chapter, in which Saiedi gives his summary of what spiritual knowledge is:

"Such knowledge is universal knowledge in the sense that, with the attainment of knowledge of the self, the wayfarer has also attained knowledge of the totality of reality. This is evident in the notion that the human being is the perfect mirror of the world. Knowledge of the self becomes knowledge of being in general. This self-knowledge is ultimately possible through knowledge of the Manifestation of God, who represents the Perfect Human Being in each particular age. Knowledge of the self through knowledge of the Manifestation of God becomes knowledge of one's own state of perfection or paradise. Finally, this knowledge, by its very nature, becomes a historically specific knowledge - a progressive knowledge in the context of progressive revelation. In Baha'u'llah's revelation, the center of that knowledge and the demonstration of its attainment is the principle of the oneness of humankind." (p 109)

I'm lost in wonder at this. Only a few pages before this passage, Saiedi had taken us to the fourth valley. As a reader, I was all fired up, thinking about union as a lover with Baha'u'llah. Come in: the feeling you get when you imagine being in Baha'u'llh's presence. The thrill and the swoon. Nothing exists but ecstasy. Baha'u'llah is before you and you are a gonner. Be fair, now, are you at that very moment going to give the least thought to the principle of the oneness of humankind?! As a matter of common sense, how could that principle possibly be the center of spiritual knowledge? I accept that it is an aspect of it, but Saiedi privileges it way out of proportion. "Just lie back and think of the oneness of humankind", is what I hear Saiedi saying. And it's one reason I couldn't finish the book. It's ironic that Saiedi spends quite a bit of time in the book accusing Juan Cole of reductionism but then tells us that the center of spiritual knowledge and the demonstration of its attainment is the principle of the oneness of humankind. (I agree with Saiedi's critiques of Juan in chapter one, by the way, over the issue of when Baha'u'llah knew he was a manifestation.)

I am the first to defend Saiedi's right to interpret the revelation as he pleases. And I don't want to make heavy weather of our differences, for they don't matter in the big scheme of things. But another reason I couldn't finish the book was becuse of the way Saiedi presented his position. As the passage above shows, you feel like you are being talked at. There are quite a few "It is clear that" clauses - two on page 108, for instance. In some places, Saiedi does 'own' that what he says is just his view. But the language he slips into leaves you feeling that if you don't share his view, you're wrong, rather than just in a different place spiritually. My overall feeling is that Saiedi has put the revelation into boxes of mental constructs and neatly tied them up with a bow. The following passage illustrates what I mean, and it includes a chilling reminder for the reader who doesn't see it his way:

"The Bab explains that the real meaning of this is that one's faith is complete and will not be subject to alteration or negation if one believes in all four supports or pillars of the divine covenant [ie, Will, Determination, Destiny and Decree]. Decree, here, becomes the symbol of the fourth pillar of the covenant. One's faith is always incomplete and subject to alteration if one has accepted only three levels but has failed to recognise the fourth. In the Baha'i Faith these four levels of the covenant are God, Baha'u'llah, the authorised interpreters of the Faith..., and the Universal House of Justice. The affirmation of divine bada', in this sense, would signify the inseparable unity of all the elements of the divine covenant. Turning away from any part of that covenant constitutes breaking the covenant, which deprives one of faith." (p 61)

Forthcoming book about Baha'u'llah's mystical teachings

  Paradise of Presence: Conversations in the Mindscape of Eternity by Alison Elizabeth Marshall