Saturday, 29 September 2007

Imitation: crows and nightingales

I posted up Sen's Talisman message about infallibility because I think it covers many important issues. I want to comment on some of them. In the first paragraph, Sen says: "I think XXX has explained why people want to get hold of something infallible, in the sense of its never being wrong. It is so that they can be not-wrong themselves, it is a way of short-circuiting the critical faculty and banishing doubt and reflection."
I wanted to look at the matter of short circuiting the critical faculty and banishing reflection. As I understand it, the process works something like this: using the critical faculty and reflection means actually working through the nuts and bolts of an issue. This involves investigating with an open mind to find the facts, determining what the relevant principles are, weighing it all up, praying for detachment and inspiration, and coming to a conclusion. The difficulty with this process is that one might come to a considered position that is different to the majority of the community or to an institution. What then? And then there is the fear that one might come to a conclusion that will condemn us in the eyes of Baha'u'llah. At our post-death moment of reckoning, we might find Baha'u'llah was angry at us for coming to that conclusion. Therefore, the absolute last thing we want is to believe anything that will make either an institution or Baha'u'llah angry at us. That would mean we'd wind up in hell.
But, it's OK because there is an answer and it's this: Abdu'l-Baha says in his Will and Testament that whatsoever the House decides is of God. Phew! This means that a letter from the House of Justice is the same as a letter written by Baha'u'llah. Therefore, it's guaranteed that everything the House decides is what Baha'u'llah would decide. This means that I don't have to worry about getting it wrong. All I have to do is agree with everything the House says, and that way I'll be agreeing with Baha'u'llah. Then, when I die, I'm guaranteed to avoid hell. Baha'u'llah is sure to be pleased with me.
This is a very appealing argument; not only does it offer a way of obtaining guaranteed salvation but it's logically consistent. If you believe the premises, then the conclusion does follow. It's very powerful, no doubt about it, and it's got the community in the grip.
As you are no doubt aware, those who reject this argument do so on the basis that it is blind obedience. The Shi'as have a practice known as taqlid where you choose a mujtahid you admire and blindly follow that person's beliefs and practices. This was done because, it was believed, the common person was incapable of understanding the faith for themselves. They needed help with that. And so, a practice grew up where the common folk were required, for their own good, to choose someone who was trained in the subtleties of the faith and follow that person. You may also know that Baha'u'llah condemned this practice. Here are two passages where Baha'u'llah tells us to turn away from the practice of taqlid. In both passages, the word 'taqlid' is translated as 'imitation':
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)."
The idea of imitation has more to it than one might initially think. From what we know so far, one is given the impression of someone who performs religious practices in exactly the same fashion as another and who might take the same position on religious questions. But what is the spiritual effect on the soul of this practice? Given that Baha'u'llah condemns it in no uncertain terms, there must be more to it than just copying others.
I think we get an idea of the spiritual effect of taqlid from Baha'u'llah's fairy tale "Nightingale and the Owl". In the story, the Rose (Baha'u'llah) calls the nightingales in the divine garden to him in order that they may join him and experience union. But the nightingales refuse, saying that the Rose they follow comes from Arabia not Iraq. Baha'u'llah berates them, saying that their response makes it clear they never recognised the Rose in the first place. Instead, they recognised "walls, rafters and buildings". He accuses them of blind obedience, saying that although they appear to be nightingales, they are actually crows. "You are known for your love of me, but it is apparent that you have begun to ignore me. It is obvious that you are really crows, who have learned to mimic nightingales. You are wandering in the land of illusion and blind obedience, and are bereft of the blessed garden of divine unity." At the end of the story, these crows who are imitating nightingales are banished from the Rose's presence. "Although you have the form of nightingales, you have for some time associated intimately with crows, and their ways have become apparent in you. Your place is not this garden. Fly away!"
For me, the message in the symbolism of the crows imitating nightingales is that one does not become a nightingale simply by taking the form of one. One does not become a nightingale simply by acting like one. Similarly, it is not enough to put on the garb of a believer - to carry out the religious practices and proclaim what we are told are the correct doctrines. Instead, a genuine spiritual change must take place in the soul so that we are transformed from crows into nightingales. This is why Baha'u'llah condemns taqlid, because it causes us to think that all we need to do to attain salvation is do what those who are considered knowledgable do and say. Whereas, in fact, doing this prevents us from taking one step on the path to salvation. We die never having gained a knowledge of our own selves.
What is the principle at work here? The principle is "the faith of no man can be conditioned by any one except himself" and it works like this:
1. God has created each one of us capable of recognising God on our own. If this were not the case, we could not be held accountable for failing to recognise God.
2. Therefore, it is unacceptable to say: 'I failed to recognise God because others did'.
"Suffer not yourselves to be wrapt in the dense veils of your selfish desires, inasmuch as I have perfected in every one of you My creation, so that the excellence of My handiwork may be fully revealed unto men. It follows, therefore, that every man hath been, and will continue to be, able of himself to appreciate the Beauty of God, the Glorified. Had he not been endowed with such a capacity, how could he be called to account for his failure? If, in the Day when all the peoples of the earth will be gathered together, any man should, whilst standing in the presence of God, be asked: "Wherefore hast thou disbelieved in My Beauty and turned away from My Self," and if such a man should reply and say: "Inasmuch as all men have erred, and none hath been found willing to turn his face to the Truth, I, too, following their example, have grievously failed to recognize the Beauty of the Eternal," such a plea will, assuredly, be rejected. For the faith of no man can be conditioned by any one except himself." (Baha'u'llah: Gleanings, LXXV)
3. On the same basis, it is also unacceptable to say: 'I recognised God because others did'. One's faith must be conditioned on oneself, not on what others do or say. In other words, one does not become a nightingale by imitating them. One must make an actual change within oneself.
What it comes down to is that, although using one's critical faculty and the process of reflection are hard spiritual work, and oftentimes painful, we cannot avoid them. In order to become nightingales, we must give those faculties and processes a hard work out. Real activity and exercise must take place in our souls. We can't just cruise through. It's precisely that inner spiritual exercise that propels us down the straight path. We can't cover any distance by sitting around.
Now, let's assume for the sake of argument that we go ahead with this process and come to some 'wrong' conclusions about things. As I identified above, our concern is that we might get it all wrong, we might end up holding a view that Baha'u'llah disagrees with and end up in hell. Let's read what Baha'u'llah has to say about that:
"Say, people of the Bayan: Be fair. By God, your Lord, the All Merciful! Aside from this divine youth, and the immortal manifestations who appeared in this dispensation, consider the Bayan in its entirety, and make your own judgment. Even if you are not, in the end, satisfied with the decree of God and what he revealed, God will nevertheless be pleased with your judgment if it is fair, so that perhaps an eye might be opened by justice and gaze toward God." Tablet of the Son, paragraph 30
You see, Baha'u'llah doesn't actually care what conclusions you come to. What he cares about more is that you undertake a genuinely fair process with regard to your decision making. It's got to be a real and fair process within you, and you have to actually work through the process, not just follow others. The saying goes that it's easier to please God than it is to please man. I believe that's true. We worry, and rightly so, about the abusive way the Baha'i administration treats the believers. The believers are taught to worry terribly about going to hell if they disobey. But that isn't Baha'u'llah. He isn't unfair and unkind like that. He really does love us and just wants us, for the sake of our own growth, to make a genuine inner effort to find him and know him. What he rejects is imitation.

The Laying Open

In the name of God the Compassionate the Caring
Did we not lay open your heart
and relieve you of the burden
that was breaking your back
Did we not honor your name
After the hard time
there is the easing
After the hard time
there is the easing
When you finish, strive again
And in your lord, aspire
Surah 94, from Approaching the Qur'an: The Early Revelations, introduced and translated by Michael Sells, p 92

Saturday, 15 September 2007

Sen on infallibility

The following message was posted by Sen McGlinn to the Talisman9 discussion list, on 14 September 2007. In it, he discusses the meaning of the term 'infallibility' in Baha'i scripture.

Message begins:

I think XXX has explained why people want to get hold of something infallible, in the sense of its never being wrong. It is so that they can be not-wrong themselves, it is a way of short-circuiting the critical faculty and banishing doubt and reflection. The inerrancy of scripture in Protestant doctrine is the clearest example: the claim is usually not used as a statement of humility in the face of scripture, but as a claim of superiority: it generally says, "I have the scriptural faith which cannot be wrong, so everyone different is wrong." Infallibility is also an assurance that something will be constant: it is used as a crutch for people who are having difficulty in coping with a world of constant universal change.

Infallibility in the sense of never being wrong is simply a non-existent thing. Arguments about its general nature are therefore futile, and it cannot be proved or disproved in any specific case. What we can say is that, for infallibility in this sense to exist in the world, there would first have to be one universal standard of "rightness" and then one contingent thing or being which somehow escapes contingency and always has and always will be "right" against this one standard. Which standard then? The will of God? Scientific accuracy? effectiveness in maximising human happiness? Effectiveness in some other respect? If there is no universal "rightness" there cannot be anything which is universally and always right.

Infallibility in the Bahai writings does not mean never being wrong. Baha'u'llah for instance was wrong on some historical and scientific matters. Bahai infallibility is in the first place an attribute of God, and as such is shared with the whole creation, and its meaning is defined as "free from sin" that is, not bound by sin, free to do otherwise. Infallibility is a statement that sin does not reign -- except when we allow it to. It is an attribute of empowerment, a statement of our liberty from what seems to us to bind us. At every breathe, we are free to start again with a fresh slate. That is why the new believer is assured by Baha'u'llah:

"Thou hast mentioned Husayn. We have attired his temple with the robe of forgiveness and adorned his head with the crown of pardon. ... Say: Be not despondent. After the revelation of this blessed verse it is as though thou hast been born anew from thy mother's womb. Say: Thou art free from sin and error. Truly God hath purged thee with the living waters of His utterance in His Most Great Prison." (Tablets of Baha'u'llah, p. 76)

This is infallibility at the individual level.

In the same way, sovereignty is an attribute of God, and the individual can choose sovereignty for himself: "Possess a pure, kindly and radiant heart, that thine may be a sovereignty ancient, imperishable and everlasting." (Baha'u'llah, The Arabic Hidden Words)

Each of the attributes of God takes different forms at different levels. So the kings are called "the manifestations of affluence and power and the daysprings of sovereignty and glory" (Epistle to the Son of the Wolf, p. 30), and in the Aqdas are told: "Arise, and serve Him Who is the Desire of all nations, Who hath created you through a word from Him, and ordained you to be, for all time, the emblems of His sovereignty." At the same time, the founders of religions exhibit a different kind of sovereignty: "by sovereignty is meant the all-encompassing, all-pervading power which is inherently exercised by the Qá'im whether or not He appear to the world clothed in the majesty of earthly dominion. ... That sovereignty is the spiritual ascendancy which He exerciseth.." (Baha'u'llah, The Kitab-i-Iqan, p. 107)

The same is true of infallibility: it takes different forms in the individual, in institutions, in relationships and so on.

"Know thou that the term 'Infallibility' hath numerous meanings and divers stations. In one sense it is applicable to the One Whom God hath made immune from error. Similarly it is applied to every soul whom God hath guarded against sin, transgression, rebellion, impiety, disbelief and the like. However, the Most Great Infallibility is confined to the One Whose station is immeasurably exalted beyond ordinances or prohibitions and is sanctified from errors and omissions." (Tablets of Baha'u'llah, p. 108)

I will puzzle out the details of this below, but we can note now that it includes "every soul" but not all in the same sense, and that it says NOTHING about not being wrong: it is all about not **doing** wrong. And we can look to the next page and see that the example of the Most Great Infallibility which Baha'u'llah gives is the designation of Mecca as the place of pilgrimmage. Muhammad puts Mecca in place of Jerusalem. He changed the Law of God. "Consider thou the blessed, the divinely-revealed verse in which pilgrimage to the House is enjoined upon everyone. It devolved upon those invested with authority after Him to observe whatever had been prescribed unto them in the Book. Unto no one is given the right to deviate from the laws and ordinances of God...." (There's a critique here of the Umayyid Caliphs in Damascus, who tried to make Jerusalem at least a rival place of pilgrimmage). So the example of infallibility is that Muhammad changed the place of pilgrimmage, and all after him had to obey that change. Except we do not go to Mecca on pilgrimmage, do we? Baha'u'llah changed the Law again.

It is not just that infallibility means "being always right but only within one dispensation" -- which would be nonsensical anyway. It is stronger: infallibility actually MEANS freedom from bondage and therefore the freedom to change. In the case of the Manifestation, it means the freedom not to be bound by the Law of God as it was up till then. In the case of House of Justice, it is bound by what is revealed in the Book, but it is free to change its own rulings. It can say, "sorry, that is wrong" or "that is no longer best" and head off in another direction. The UHJ is not bound by its own history, or by the need to appear consistent to the world. If is FREE, in a way that the Pope is not. He, like the Shaykh al-Azhar and the Shi`ah Mujtahids, dare not be seen to change what the authorities before them have laid down. They are prisoners of history, and of the expectations of the faithful.

I said I would puzzle out the passage from the Ishraqat about infallibility in more detail. In Taherzadeh's translation of the Ishraqat, a new paragraph begins here:

"When the stream of words reached this stage [maqaam, station], the sweet savours of true knowledge [‘irfan] were shed abroad and the day-star of divine unity [tawhiid] shone forth above the horizon of His holy utterance. .... Whoso faileth to quaff the choice wine which We have unsealed through the potency of Our Name, the All-Compelling [al-qayyuum - better would be ‘the Self-Subsisting], shall be unable to discern the splendours of the light of divine unity or to grasp the essential purpose underlying the Scriptures of God, the Lord of heaven and earth, the sovereign Ruler of this world and of the world to come. Such a man shall be accounted among the faithless in the Book of God, the All-Knowing, the All-Informed."

There is no mention here of infallibility, but there is in the following paragraph, and the theme of the oneness of God forms a link. I am inclined therefore to think that it is not the sum of the foregoing Ishraqat, but rather the specific statement that the Manifestation has no partner in the Most Great Infallibility, which gives us ‘true knowledge.'

Before answering the question, Baha'u'llah explains that he has delayed unveiling the doctrine because it will elicit opposition from the `ulamaa' and persecution for the faithful. Then he prefaces the actual explanation with a restatement of the sovereignty of the Manifestation, and the threat this represents to existing religions:

"... thou didst firmly adhere unto seemly patience during the days when the Pen was held back from movement and the Tongue hesitated to set forth an explanation regarding the wondrous sign [al-ayah al-`azmii], the Most Great Infallibility [`ismat al-kabrii]. Thou hast asked this Wronged One to remove for thee its veils and coverings ... We restrained the Pen for a considerable lapse of time in accordance with divine wisdom [hikmat] and for the sake of protecting the faithful .... The All-Merciful is come invested with power and sovereignty. Through His power the foundations of religions have quaked ... Know thou that the term ‘Infallibility' [`ismat] hath numerous meanings and divers stations [ma`aan shattaa wa maqaamat shattaa = diverse meanings and diverse stations]."

The reason why infallibility (in its Bahai meaning) causes the foundations of religions to quake, is that in Bahai teachings infallibility entails change and freedom to change, whereas in previous religions and even in the minds of some Bahais, it is used as a buttress against change. ( !! ) The parallel construction in the last sentence links the diversity in meaning to the different stations or levels at which infallibility applies, as we have seen above. Taherzadeh's translation continues:

"In one sense it [infallibility] is applicable to the One Whom God hath made immune from error."

"In one sense" does not appear in the text, and the capitalisation of One, implying that this is the first station, the most great infallibility of the Manifestation, is an inference by the translator. In my view it is incorrect: this sentence and the following one are talking about the general use of the term, and its Arabic etymology. What it says literally is:

"Where there is one whom God guards (`s.mahu) from slipping (az-zalal), he (God) confers upon him this name (infallible) as a station [fii maqaam]."

Baha'u'llah is emphasising that the word `ismat comes from the verb `sm, to guard or protect, and the concept ‘infallible' means that God has protected someone from something - in the first case, from a slip. Zalal is a simpler term than khataa', it means a lapse, slip or mistake. Coincidentally, this explanation works in English: in-fall-ible means ‘saved from falling,' as if God is beside us and catches our elbow when we are about to fall. The English etymology in this case is false, but the coincidence gives us a mnemonic for one meaning of the term.

The text continues, in my translation:

"Similarly where God has guarded anyone from sin (khataa'), rebellion (`isyaan), impiety (`iraaz) disbelief (kufr), joining partners with God (shirk) and the like, God grants each and every one of them the name of ‘infallibility.'"

In short, where God guards anyone from anything, this guarding is called ‘ismat.

"However, the Most Great Infallibility belongs to the One Whose station is a holiness above ordinances and prohibitions and an exemption from sin (khataa') and forgetfulness (nisyaan).] Indeed He is a Light which is not succeeded by darkness and a suitability [s.awaab = rightness, fittingness, perhaps righteousness here?] that is not subject to sin/failing (khataa'). Were He to pronounce upon water the decree of wine (i.e., that it is forbidden) or upon heaven the decree of earth, or upon light the decree of fire, it is the truth [haqq = truth, reality, legal right] and there is no doubt about it; and it is not for anyone to object to it (or, against him) or to say ‘why and wherefore?.' If anyone objects, he is one of the objectors in the Book of God, the Lord of the worlds. Truly, he is "He shall not be asked of His doings, but they shall be questioned."

The Qur'an verse (21:23) refers to God, but the subject of this paragraph is the Manifestation of God. The last sentence asserts that the Manifestation is in this respect like God: free to do as he (or she) wills, without having to answer to others. This freedom includes changing laws, of which the extreme example would be to forbid the believers to drink water. It includes changing the language and symbols of the religions, in which, for instance, fire has been the symbol of punishment and disgrace, and light symbolises insight and purity. What is meant by pronouncing the decree of earth upon heaven? We imagine the physical and metaphorical heavens to be unchanging, while the earth (or the sub-lunar realm in medieval cosmology) is the realm of change, relativity and conditionality. The Manifestation has the authority to introduce change into "heaven" -- into religion.

"He is come from the invisible heaven (or: the heaven of concealment), and with him the banner `He doeth whatsoever He willeth' and the hosts of power and authority (ikhtiyaar, which is authority in the sense of being able to choose) while it is the duty of all besides Him to hold fast to the religious laws (shari`ah) and ordinances (ahkaam) that have been enjoined upon them. Should anyone transgress them, even to the extent of a single hair, his work will miscarry."

The last sentence need not mean that one who ignores the religious laws will not prosper in this world;­ the opposite is quite likely. The worst sort of people generally rise to the top. It seems more likely to mean that respect and obedience for the religious laws is a condition for the acceptability of good works in the eyes of God, and for the success of the mystic's efforts.


Commentary on Tablet of the Son

 Commentary on Tablet of the Son