Sunday, 28 December 2008

A churchless faith

I am indebted to a good friend of mine for telling me about a guy called Alan Jamieson, who has done extensive research into the process people go through when they leave evangelical pentecostal/charismatic churches in New Zealand. Alan is a pastor and a sociologist. His PhD, submitted in 1998, is titled "A Churchless Faith. Faith outside the Evangelical Pentecostal/Charismatic church of New Zealand". He has done much more research into these areas and other Christian-related issues since then, and it seems that he is supported financially in this work by the Portland Research Trust. Alan Jamieson, and a friend of his, also maintain a blog, called "Prodigal Kiwi(s) Blog". Alan has also written several books - his PhD was published as "A churchless faith". But he has written several other books since then. They are listed on the blog homepage.
I have just begun reading Alan's PhD and recommend it. Firstly, it is an example of what can be produced when someone does real sociological research into people leaving a community; it is not the pseudo-sociology produced by Moojan Momen in his "Apostasy" article. And, interestingly, for the first three years that Alan did the research, he was a pastor at a large evangelical charismatic church. This did not stop him from producing truly academic work. Another contrast with Moojan's article is that Alan carried out actual interviews with 108 leave-takers, listening to them sympathically and basing his results on what they said. The result is very interesting indeed; particularly, when one compares their stories and situations with those that unenrolled Baha'is and ex-Baha'is have been through.
I have not read the PhD right through yet, but have had a look to get the gist of it. In the Introduction, Alan points out that, although the evangelical Pentecostal/charismatic churches (EPC) are the fastest growing of the Christian churches, at the same time, they are also losing about 10% of their followers per annum (through the 1990s, when this research was done). These are called the 'back door losses' (p16) and the research is focused on who these people are and why they are leaving. With regard to research done in the area of disaffiliation, Alan points out that:
"the majority of disaffiliation research from any religious group has been drawn from census and survey data. There is little evidence of qualitative research focused on the methods of face-to-face interviews and participant observation. This research therefore set out to open up the understandings of the leavers from this growing stream of the Christian church - the evangelical Pentecostal and charismatic churches by the use of qualitative research." p17
Alan interviewed 54 'informed insiders'. These were pastors and counsellors in the church who had dealt with leave-takers as part of their work, as well as some lecturers in theological colleges and universities(p20). Alan was keen to establish what these insiders believed were the reasons why people left church. He also explains that previous research puts those leaving church into three categories: those on the fringe, the young, and those linked to church for a short period of time. Alan's research revealed that, of the 108 leave-takers he spoke to, the majority were middle aged (between 35 and 45 years), had been involved in the church for a long time (an average of 15.8 years over all interviewees) and had been highly committed to it(p19). All interviewees had made adult decisions to join the church; they were not brought up in it(p26). Many were married, well educated and had stable work. Moreover -

"the majority of these leavers are not moving to a position of apostasy, (i.e. no longer holding to a Christian faith) but like Stuart and Michelle are retaining their faith while leaving the church. They are also, like Stuart and Michelle, unlikely to return to an evangelical or Pentecostal/charismatic church again. This raises an interesting question - what characterises the post-church faith of these leavers? This is a question upon which the research focuses much of its attention..." (p33)
Using categories developed in James Fowler's faith development theory as a guide (ch4), Alan looks at the faith journey the leave-takers took after leaving the church. Of the 108 interviewed, 8 ceased to believe in the teachings of the Christian church. This left 100 interviewees, which Alan divided into four categories:
  • Chapter 6: Displaced followers (19 interviewees): these were those who, after leaving, did not question the faith assumptions they held when attending church. They remained believers and used support systems outside the church to sustain them.
  • Chapter 7: Reflexive exiles (32 interviewees): these were those who, after leaving, questioned the faith assumptions they held when attending church.
  • Chapter 8: Transitional explorers (19 interviewees): these were those who, through allowing doubt, deconstructed their old faith and then built a new self-owned one using old and new elements.
  • Chapter 9: Integrated way-finders (30 interviewees): these were those who critically assessed their beliefs and, as a result, developed integrated and committed faith positions; such people were accepting of other beliefs.
Chapter 10 looks at the faith-related groups that the leave-takers participated in after leaving church. Some created and/or participated in devotional and discussion groups, which had a significant influence on the process they went through to find their feet again. Chapter 11 looks at the leave-taking in the light of macro issues such as secularisation, modernism and postmodernism.
The work is full of quotes from the leave-takers, which make enlightening reading for those interested in what a person goes through when they leave a faith community, voluntarily or forcibly. The rawness of the accounts gives the lie to those who say that leaving the Baha'i community is just 'a voluntary act', 'not a punishment'.
"Stephen Crittenden [interviewer]: Two of the most interesting broad ideas that you speak about are the idea of the church as a voluntary society that people can leave these days if they don't agree. Could you expand on that a bit?

Geoffrey Robinson: Well one of the problems is that a whole lot of people do leave the church; we know that, in vast numbers people have left the church. One unfortunate side effect of that is that the force for change has left the church...”

Quoted on Prodigal Kiwi, "Bringing Change"

Saturday, 1 November 2008

The knower as an artist

I was interested to read, and I recommend, Sen's response to Paul Lample's article, "Learning and the evolution of the Baha'i community", which is found on Sen's blog. I liked the way Sen emphasised that a Baha'i scholar is an artist and cannot get away from that fact, because everyone necessarily has a personal, creative interpretation of the revelation. No one can, as Sen puts it, "stand in the shoes of that Author".
"It goes without saying that God creates ‘ex nihilo,’ while we create from what God has given us. In the case of theology, we create from the examples of the Manifestations, from scriptural resources, and from questions. Creativity is not an optional characteristic of scholarship, it is inherent. The choice is between being conscious of it, and distinguishing it from the materials we were given, or being unaware of it and blithely supposing that what we ‘find’ in the Writings is simply their intended meaning — as if we could stand in the shoes of that Author !" -- Sen McGlinn
I've been doing a lot of thinking over the past several months about the idea that the scholar is an artist. This came about because I started analysing the phenomena of movies and fiction and their influence on me; for example, why I love them so much, why they captivate people, and how their influence can be harnessed for the revelation. These were new questions for me. They reflected a fundamental change, which lead to my wondering what human activities really are most influential for getting the message across. Up until early this year, I had assumed that the way to go was to use rational argument. I had gained degrees in philosophy and in law and had learned to put together a rational argument. But something happened this year - a mid-life re-examination of my life - and I realised I was bored with this rational approach to things. Having worked as a professional writer for 15 years and done a lot of writing for the faith, I guess I was written out. This lead me to examine the power of creative pursuits, in order to broaden my horizons.
This examination process showed me that I had a hidden prejudice, or something of that sort, against the worth of creative pursuits. That didn't mean I didn't appreciate them, for I love many arts, but I assumed that they were the poor relation beside rational pursuits, when it came to usefulness in teaching the Faith. I assumed that 'direct teaching' was most effective because, well, it is direct and gets to the nitty gritty. Steve looked up some quotes on the topic for me and I quickly learned that the Guardian had a similar opinion about the arts. For example, when asked about teaching the faith through fiction, he argued that there wasn't time for such an indirect approach to teaching:
"He would not recommend fiction as a means of teaching; the condition of the world is too acute to permit of delay in giving them the direct teachings, associated with the name of Baha'u'llah. But any suitable approach to the Faith, which appeals to this or that group, is certainly worthy of effort, as we wish to bring the Cause to all men, in all walks of life, of all mentalities.(3)" (23 March 1945) (Shoghi Effendi: Writers and Writing, p 412)
But, you know, I've spent nearly 30 years thinking that I shouldn't do things because there just isn't time. And after 30 years, somehow that argument doesn't cut ice any more. Humanity is always on the brink of some catastrophe; it was on the brink of WW2 then and it's on the brink of financial collapse now. Does that really mean there's no time for fiction? Steve told me today that Sen recently argued on Talisman9 that the 'end time' was when Baha'u'llah came; we are now in the period where humanity works out what that means for its future. Surely fiction and the arts have a role to play in that process. I guess I'm rebelling against the fact that I've spent half my life feeling like I didn't have time to live; that to have a life was selfish and something I should sacrifice for the sake of the Cause.

And so, spurred on by the fact that I no longer believe the end is nigh, I stayed the course and continued my examination of the power of fiction. It was Steve who said, one day in the middle of a conversation about these things, that fiction acted like a mirror. I realised he had a good point - fiction about the Baha'i community acts like a mirror on that community; it shows the community, warts and all (assuming it's done properly), to that community and to the world. When I thought about it, I realised that this was indeed a powerful instrument. Any fiction written about a subject that people intrepret with entirely different worldviews is going to cause a stir. And this even more so when there are power and control issues involved. The other thought I had was in relation to Sen's idea of the postmodern society, where you have independent but complementary areas of human activity: religion, state, arts, science, law and so on. Each of these is an important and worthy pursuit and has its own rules of participation. Baha'is should participate in the arts because it is a worthy human endeavour like any other. It is not trumped by religion - just as religion cannot render the state obsolete, it cannot say the arts are a waste of time. Furthermore, just as the state has its own rules, the arts do too - in other words, the arts should be an independent statement on reality and not a slave to vested religious interests.
Given this, it's no wonder Paul Lample says that the Baha'i scholar isn't an artist, for the true artist produces a personal and independent image of reality. By denying that the Baha'i scholar is an artist, the idea is, I suggest, to rule out a legitimate place for depictions of reality outside the institutions' agenda.

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

Monday, 29 September 2008

The Baha'i modernist worldview

For those who haven't had a chance to read Sen's fabulous blog entry, I recommend they do. It's called "For the betterment of the world" and this blog entry is a response to it.

Although Sen wrote the essay because he wanted to discuss the issue of Baha'i involvement in politics, I find the ideas in it clarify other issues I have been struggling with - and these have to do with how modernism has shaped the way Baha'is see the faith. One of the crucial things that Sen does in his essay is explain clearly the difference between pre-modern society, a modern state and a postmodern state. The modern state is described as "rationalised, centralised, nationalist, colonialist (and oppressive where it can get away with it), with a state ideology and ideological political parties - intrudes on the sphere of thought, including religion. It tries to "train" the citizens it needs, or thinks it needs, and to justify its actions and ambitions, and it employs ideological tools such as patriotism or a particular state ideology to do it." When I read this, I see the Baha'i administration with its community fallen into line. OK, it's not nationalist, but it is triumphalist within the sphere of religion. Most important for my discussion here is that it intrudes into the sphere of thought of members and trains them for its ideological goals.

Towards the end of the essay, Sen says that: "It is important for Bahais to note that the high tide of the modern state coincides with the end of Abdu’l-Baha’s ministry and the whole of Shoghi Effendi’s ministry." To me, this explains the worldview in which the Guardian dreamed up the Baha'i administration. No doubt the Guardian never intended to it to fall prey to the negative aspects of modernity - using the administration as a way of getting power and wealth, attacking social groups that are disliked, or to promote exclusivity and triumphalism - but he had a modern worldview nonetheless. And because Baha'is are stuck in a Guardian time warp, they still see the faith in a modernist way. Key features of this include: a centralised administration that wields absolute authority using the ideology that the administration is, exclusively, the Baha'i Faith. This is justified on the basis of a self-serving, narrow interpretation of the covenant, backed up with the idolatrous doctrine of infallibility. All those wishing to join are persuaded to accept this claim, encouraged to put all their resources into carrying out the centralised plans, and indoctrinated to believe that there is no salvation outside this realm. All activity must take place within the acceptable spheres of participation; those who follow their own star are ostracised and those who speak out in a persuasive way are disenrolled.

A crucial idea that helps to prop up this ideological structure is the argument that the term 'unenrolled Baha'i' is an oxymoron (a contradition in terms) - to be a Baha'i, one must be a member of the Baha'i community. One way to see the huge psychological power this idea has on the minds of Baha'is is to liken it to the concept of 'pointing the bone' once used, as I understand it, by Australian aborigines. If a person had the bone pointed at them, they simply wandered away and died. It was a death sentence. Similarly, Baha'is cannot imagine surviving without membership in the Baha'i community, as if there's no oxygen 'out there' to breathe. This notion that being an unenrolled Baha'i is impossible does not have its roots in the revelation; it comes out of the Baha'i modernist worldview.

Sen's discussion on the concept of modernism has shed light on another issue that has been with me for several years - and that is the push to work like a Trojan, 24/7, because there isn't any time! Previously, I interpreted this drive to work, work, work, and its associated anxiety about laziness, as the protestant work ethic. But recently, in conversation with Steve, I realised that there is another source for this nagging silent voice, and that is the words of the Guardian: "The field is indeed so immense, the period so critical, the Cause so great, the workers so few, the time so short, the privilege so priceless, that no follower of the Faith of Baha'u'llah, worthy to bear His name, can afford a moment's hesitation." (Advent of Divine Justice, p46) That was written in 1939, just before World War Two, and, I realise now, is also a crucial aspect of the Baha'i modernist worldview. Not only must Baha'is operate within sanctified spheres for salvation, but there isn't time to do anything else if we're to save humanity. Don't glance out the window, keep facing straight ahead, don't lose your chance. I swear, I've spent nearly three decades running around in a panic because of that quote (hence the feelings of uselessness expressed in the earlier blog entry). All for what? Have the Baha'is saved humanity? No, they can't even save themselves. We are all still here; it's just 70 years on. But I can see the passage in its context now; I see it from the point of view of one who lives beyond the millennium, outside the Baha'i community, and free of Baha'i modernist ideology.

And so the last 30-odd years of my life will be spent being a Baha'i in a postmodern world, free to discover for myself what that means. Sen describes the postmodern state: "In the postmodern state, the state recognises its limitations. It has no business in the world of thought, it cannot direct the economy although it can provide good law. It does not have any legitimate means to train the right kind of citizens..." I'm going to follow my own star; I'm going to fulfil my duties to Baha'u'llah according to my spiritual calling; I'm going to do things I would never have done had I remained a member of the Baha'i community; and I'm going to discover things about myself I wouldn't have discovered otherwise. And one day - it'll come - the Baha'i administration will realise that it needs to get out of the world of thought, stop indoctrinating its members according to its self-serving ideology, and get down to the virtuous business of making good law.

Tuesday, 9 September 2008

Ahang's witnesses: volume 3, part 3

I continue my review of volume 3 of Ahang's witnesses series, a memoir of Dr Mu'ayyad titled "Eight Years Near Abdu'l-Baha". In part 1, I focused on the first two chapters; in part 2, I covered chapters 3-5; in this installment, I cover chapters 6-8. In part 2, I noted that I could not access volume 3 on Ahang's site and assumed that this was a temporary glitch. However, the problem continues, indicating that it's been taken down indefinitely. Therefore, this installment will be the last I'll do on volume 3. There's no point in my reviewing volumes my readers can't access. I'll move on to something else that everyone can read.

Chapter 6 is a different kettle of fish from the previous chapters. The events take place in Abu Sinan in November 1914; in other words, it is the beginning of the war and life changes a great deal. Footnote 241 tells us that "Abu Sinan is a village on the eastern side of Akka." Dr Mu'ayyad explains that the war made life hell. He describes it this way:

"With the passage of each day, worries and apprehensions grew more desperate. Power rested in the hands of a number of ruthless military men who did not consider themselves accountable to anyone. It was a day of mayhem and plunder by the Ottoman officials. They caused difficulties for whomever they chose and destroyed the innocent with the most meager charges. No one had the least control over his possessions or life. The government was in the control of a number of faithless, bloodthirsty and cruel men... Gallows were active in every town, all prominent citizens were eliminated. It was a time for Pashas to settle accounts with their opponents and to exact revenge [through hanging]. As soon as the smallest complaint was raised against anyone, immediately a file would be prepared for him and his demise was assured." (page 180)

As you can imagine, this was the perfect opportunity for Abdu'l-Baha's enemies to move against him. They gave gifts to Jamal Pasha, the military commander, which included Baha'u'llah's tent and carpets from his home. In doing so, they made complaints about Abdu'l-Baha, saying that he was a "political mishief-maker and a religious rabble-rouser", had "designs to inaugurate a new monarchy" and was "a foreign agent". "They painted the Greatest Name on a flag and presented it as Abdu'l-Baha's new 'Standard of Monarchy'". (p182) Abdu'l-Baha's situation became so grave that he sent every Baha'i out of Akka and Haifa. Only he remained in Akka, with a servant. Dr Mu'ayyad went to live in Abu Sinan.

Dr Mu'ayyad's residence in Abu Sinan has to be read to be believed. It was one room at street level made of clay bricks, 7-8 metres long, 3-4 metres wide and 3-4 meters high, with one warped door and one window. The ceiling was held up by "four bent and termite-infested beams" (p191). "When [they were] closed, it was totally dark, and when opened, the unbearable cold, particularly on cloudy or rainy days, cut through us. In fact, when it rained, it flooded the room, and we had to find ways to keep the water out."(p191) Dr Mu'ayyad would light a fire inside the room to keep warm, even though this meant that the room filled with smoke. Outside the door was an area of two square metres that was lower than ground level, in which the landlord placed figs for sale.

Dr Mu'ayyad lived in the room with Badi Effendi, a school teacher (although, when they had visitors, there was up to six people sleeping in it). In addition to sleeping in this room, they both used it for their occupations through the day; so Badi used it for teaching children and Dr Mu'ayyad used it as an office and for surgery!

"In addition to practicing regular medicine, I occasionally performed surgery, during which Lua Getsinger acted as the anesthetic technition. At times, Badi Effendi would help by providing anesthetics. The wonder of it was that all of those operations were successful, and I often performed surgeries that I had never performed before, particularly because I had only recently completed medical school and did not have much experience, nor adequate medical supplies... One hundred percent of my practice was successful and never once did I lose a patient. Despite the lack of medication and proper instruments, I attempted every necessary procedure and the Almighty always granted the healing." (page 190)

Abdu'l-Baha would visit whenever he could. He stayed with the Greatest Holy Leaf, who was living next door to Dr Mu'ayyad's room. She cooked the food for those staying in it. Dr Mu'ayyad stresses that, despite his living conditions and the political situation, he and fellow Baha'is were very happy. I think I would have been traumatised by seeing people being hung all the time. Dr Mu'ayyad says that people were hung for as little as leaving lights on at night.

Chapters 7 and 8 continue the earlier pattern of the memoirs, containing numerous accounts of talks and sayings from Abdu'l-Baha. I'll end with a few that interested me. On page 222, Dr Mu'ayyad quotes Abdu'l-Baha saying: "Plant fruit trees since they are productive. I am very fond of fruit trees, though I never eat fruits, except an occasional sweet tangerine. Nevertheless, I love for the tree to bear fruits." This intrigued me because, this year, I have planted several fruit trees in my garden. We don't have a large garden (I'd love to have more land), but I figured out a way to plant fruit trees anyway. I have even planted a walnut tree. I guess it's a sign of the new revelation that my walnut tree is grafted and will fruit almost immediately; I don't have to wait decades for walnuts! With global warming bringing an uncertain future, I decided to redesign my garden, taking out ornamentals and planting trees, shrubs, climbers and groundcovers that all fruit.

On page 220, Dr Mu'ayyad says that a "shining cat" was sitting next to Abdu'l-Baha and pressing herself against him. He said: "This cat has such bliss that none of earth's monarchs can rival her. She has no fears or worries and is completely protected and cared for by God." Steve and I adore our cat, and we often comment about how happy he is. Each day, I contemplate him and his relaxed attitude to life; he is a constant reminder to me of what union with God looks like. At the moment, he is fast asleep on his special bed on the couch. I call him a 'living ornament'. Functionally, he is as useless as an ornament on my wall, but he is living - he moves and eats. I love him and look after him as a member of the family. He's an example of why looking at things in a wholly functional way is a mistake. My cat is magic and spiritual and brings joy; medicine is just finding out how such things as having cats improves our health.

On page 223, Dr Mu'ayyad quotes Abdu'l-Baha as saying: "Cleanliness has a profound effect on the spirit... Even though some things are earth-bound, they have great effect on the soul, such as cleanliness or a good voice. Voice is no more than airwaves that reach one's ear and cause the vibration of the eardrums. Yet, consider its profound effect on the spirit. Similarly, cleanliness effects the soul." This is an issue I've often wondered about. "Cleanliness is next to Godliness" is a famous Christian saying that I associate with Victorian England, and so it comes with baggage for me. But I'm re-examining it in my own life. Recently, I eliminated many activities and concerns from my life that were not contributing to my spiritual health (such as participating in discussion lists and concerning myself with Baha'i community goings-on). The result is that I have more time than I used to. When I was 'busy', I used to think that I didn't have enough time for cleanliness. I don't mean that I lived in squalor; it's more a question of priorities. Now that I am not busy wasting my energies, I have more time to look after the cleanliness aspects of my life, and I will stop thinking it's just a physical thing and doesn't matter. This is just one consequence of my decision to follow new paths. The other day, I said to Steve that I had turned my life into a chore. I want it to be a creative endeavour.

Tuesday, 5 August 2008

Snow-animals letter

Last week, I went through my provisional translations and put them into clear files. I had allowed them to fall into a mess and couldn't find anything. During the clean-up, I found a treasure that I thought I'd lost. I found a letter that Baha'u'llah wrote upon his arrival in Istanbul. Juan translated it and put it up on H-Baha'i on 10.2.02. Given that I have Juan's permission to put his translations up on my sites, I thought I'd put up the translation here so that everyone could enjoy it. That is better than it being buried in the H-Baha'i archives. I'll also put it up on Baha'u'llah explore. I call the letter the 'snow animals' letter because, in it, Baha'u'llah refers to seeing snow animals for the first time. I love it. So here it is:

Source: Rosen, p. 126, no. 37:

Baha'u'llah, Istanbul, fall, 1863

He is the mighty, the everlasting.

It is well known that the wayfarers unto God, after passing the way stations of what is other than he, arrived at the renowned place known as Istanbul. So far, nothing has been seen from its inhabitants but conventional, officious formalities. What will come next? What decree will fate inscribe behind the veil? But, we saw many barren trees and much frozen snow. Every moment the heat dissipates and the cold increases. The salamander of fire has been heard of, which depends on fire for its existence, by the grace of the all-knowing, the all-wise. But a snow salamander has never been seen. Now, by the wonders of God's handiwork, many snow animals have been observed. After that, what will the white hand of divine power and the illumined hand of the all-praised bring forth?

All are held in his grasp, and depend on his will. No God is there but he, the mighty, the eternal. Nothing else has happened. That is, there are no discussions. After our consultations, details will be sent. All will be comfortable in their quarters until the time comes. That time is in the hands of God, the mighty, the beloved. We make mention of all of the friends, and counsel all to avoid neglecting the mention of God, nor should they allow their love of him to be veiled by the love of anything else. Peace be among those who follow the truth.

It is interesting to note here that Baha'u'llah seems not to know what his fate will be. According to Juan, by this time, the Ottomans had already decided that Baha'u'llah was to be exiled to Edirne. Apparently, they decided this at the same time that they decided to exile him from Baghdad. That is, the Ottomans intended all along to send Baha'u'llah to Edirne from Baghdad and not to Istanbul. Juan found this out from documents he found in the Ottoman archives. Juan states this here:

"Baha'u'llah was exiled to Baghdad in Ottoman Iraq in early 1853, after having been imprisoned on false charges of involvement in the Babi attempt on the shah's life... Baha'u'llah's growing popularity in the early 1860s caused many pilgrims from Iran to seek him out in Baghdad when they visited the shrines of the Imams in Najaf and Karbala. This development annoyed the Iranian government, which put pressure on the Ottomans to exile Baha'u'llah farther away from Iran.

The Ottomans acquiesced and decided to send him to Edirne from Baghdad, as is apparent from documents in the Ottoman archives, … and so his brief stay in Istanbul in fall of 1863 had been intended to be only a stop-over."

As Juan points out in his message to H-Baha'i, the wording in Baha'u'llah's letter suggests that he was unaware of the Ottoman's plan. That may well have been the case. I think there are other possibilities: that he did know, but did not reveal this and waited to see whether the decision would be carried out. There is such contradictory evidence relating to the issue of what Baha'u'llah knew about the future. I'm willing to accept that it's too complex to fathom.

Sunday, 20 July 2008

Plot and character

I've started reading a book about how to write fiction. It's called "Writing. The Craft of Creative Fiction". I love the movies, you see, and desire to understand how movies are dreamed up and put together. I found this book in the public library; it was published in 1964, which would be considered old these days, but I like it because it's old. Some modern books about writing are so chatty and once-over-lightly they're unreadable. Or they tell you how to run your life, which always grates with me. But this one was written by a guy called Olaf Ruhen, who Steve tells me was born in Dunedin (where I live!), and he's thought hard about his craft and has shared some insightful ideas about it.
Chapter 2 of the book is called "Plotting" and discusses what a plot is and how one is developed. Olaf Ruhen describes methods that authors have used to come up with plots. For me, a key factor to come out of this discussion, and a point that Olaf emphasises, is that plot is actually a product of character. I hadn't thought of this before. The idea is that the main character will be a person of a certain personality (that is, a person with particular virtues or vices) who is submerged in a particular field in life (that is, particular circumstances such as time and place) and who is driven by a desire, ambition goal or similar. From these few things, a plot can be quite readily developed. For example, if the person is wicked and lusts after a maiden and lives in times when women were easy prey through money and manipulation, then you may have a plot where the main character carries out a plan to marry and thereby control a woman he desires, despite her revulsion towards him. In his discussion, Olaf gives this example:
"Let us say that he [the antagonist] moves from love to hate... He never does so in a single movement; even a chameleon needs periods of adjustment, and it is the orderly progress of this opposing character that outlines the plot of the novel and provides an ever-increasing conflict. Going from Love to Hate he passes these road-markers: Love. Disappointment. Annoyance. Irritation. Disillusionment. Indifference. Disgust. Anger. Hate. In that order." (p 11)
The more I thought about this idea of plot emerging out of character, the more I thought what an important idea it is. One of my favourite quotes from Baha'u'llah is from Surah of Blood: "Adorn yourself with my character". This is from paragraph 5 of the surah; the full sentence reads: "Adorn yourself with My character, in such wise that should anyone treat you unjustly you would take no heed of him, nor oppose him." If we adorn ourselves with Baha'u'llah's character, then the plot follows - we will not take any notice of someone who treats us unjustly and would not move to oppose that person. That's a plot in itself. In a similar way, the writings are full of ideas of how a particular plot would emerge from a person in various situations if they were adorned with Baha'u'llah's character.
But what's even more interesting about this is what it means for our concept of teaching the faith. I was pleased to find this idea about plot emerging from character because I thought it might give me, for the first time, a means of explaining what I think teaching is, and what Baha'u'llah intended by it. It is a very powerful idea, which sweeps away in a heart beat the need for door-knocking and other methods of questionable integrity.
The point is this: Baha'u'llah tells us repeatedly to be persons of good character. How do we respond? We think to ourselves: 'Well, I'll try my best to be a good person but, in the meantime, I'll carry out teaching activities, I'll attend meetings and do my bit for the portals. If I throw in some prayer and reading on top of all that, I feel sure that my character will be as it should be. How could it not be? I am doing all the right things, aren't I?' Based on my experience, this approach does not bring about transformation of character or end in effective teaching. It does succeed in generating a lot of activity and energy and, when you're in the thick of things, you sincerely feel like you're doing something very important. But lots of activity and energy isn't what matters - what matters is character. The Guardian stated this principle in plain terms:
"Not by the force of numbers, not by the mere exposition of a set of new and noble principles, not by an organized campaign of teaching - no matter how worldwide and elaborate in its character - not even by the staunchness of our faith or the exaltation of our enthusiasm, can we ultimately hope to vindicate in the eyes of a critical and sceptical age the supreme claim of the Abha Revelation. One thing and only one thing will unfailingly and alone secure the undoubted triumph of this sacred Cause, namely, the extent to which our own inner life and private character mirror forth in their manifold aspects the splendor of those eternal principles proclaimed by Baha'u'llah." (Shoghi Effendi: Baha'i Administration, p 66)
Why is it that character is so important? Because plot emerges from character. Our character will determine the choices we make, the people we attract, the circumstances we find ourselves in and the kind of relationships we build with others. If we adorn ourselves with Baha'u'llah's character, then the world will change around us. We are authors, just like those who write fiction. But we write the story of our lives and if we want the plot to include teaching the faith and influencing others, then we need to set up the ingredients of that future reality in our character. But if we set character aside and get involved in 'activity', thinking that that's what results in change, then we're wasting our time. No fundamental change will occur. Character and deeds are fundamental to this revelation. They may not have been so important in previous revelations, but there's no getting around them in this one:
"O son of my handmaid! Guidance hath ever been given by words, and now it is given by deeds. Every one must show forth deeds that are pure and holy, for words are the property of all alike, whereas such deeds as these belong only to Our loved ones. Strive then with heart and soul to distinguish yourselves by your deeds. In this wise We counsel you in this holy and resplendent tablet." (Persian Hidden Word 76)
There's an interesting passage in the fourth valley of the four, where Baha'u'llah states that a person can achieve a spiritual station where they will become like God: "O My Servant! Obey Me and I shall make thee like unto Myself. I say `Be,' and it is, and thou shalt say `Be,' and it shall be." (Baha'u'llah: Seven Valleys and Four Valleys, p 63) How can it be that a person can say 'Be!' and it will be? The answer is: through their character. It isn't about a person expressing or suppressing their will, thinking this or that outcome is in line with God's will; it's about the creative writing of reality through character.
What does it mean to adorn ourselves with Baha'u'llah's character? I think the essence of this idea is found in the following Hidden Word:
"O children of vainglory! For a fleeting sovereignty ye have abandoned My imperishable dominion, and have adorned yourselves with the gay livery of the world and made of it your boast. By My beauty! All will I gather beneath the one-colored covering of the dust and efface all these diverse colors save them that choose My own, and that is purging from every color." (Persian Hidden Word 74)
What's interesting here is the idea of "purging from every color". Again, this can be understood in terms of character and plot. Olaf Ruhen makes the following statement in his book on writing fiction: "There is an unbreakable bond to tie the pivotal character and the changing character together." (p 11) In other words, opposites are bound up in each other. If you have an enemy, you are tied to that enemy by your antagonism toward them. The bond is the mutual antagonism; any strong feeling towards someone is a bond that ties us to them, whether the feeling is negative or positive. And this bond is integral to the plot of our lives; our character is given over to an uncontrollable state of being and this dictates what turns our lives will take. The point about purging from every colour is becoming detached. If we work on our character so that we are not in any way affected by such feelings as love and hatred (as Baha'u'llah identifies them in the Iqan (para 213)), we become detached from them and this means they no longer determine our future. When we are free of these character traits, we become free in the real sense of the term, for we become free to plot our lives in the manner we choose. We are no longer written by our passions; instead, we control them and become creative authors of our lives.

Monday, 7 July 2008

Ahang's Witnesses: Volume 3, part 2

This posting follows on from my last one, Ahang's Witnesses: Volume 3, part 1, in which I said that I would begin slowly reading through and reporting on the many volumes that Ahang has painstakingly translated and published on his website, Witness to Babi and Baha'i History. As my title indicates, I began my reading with volume 3 of the series because volumes 1 and 2 were not yet up on the site. I have since found out why - at least for volume 1. If one clicks on the link for volume 1, "The Genesis of the Babi-Baha'i Faiths in Shiraz and Fars", one is taken to the site of the publisher, Brill, and told that this volume is expected to be published in September 2008. The catch is that the expected price is US$200! Ouch. I guess I won't be reviewing that volume. But never mind, most volumes are available for download on Ahang's site and one must make the most of that. [Note: at the time I published this review, I couldn't access volume 3. But I assume that this is just a temporary glitch.]

Volume 3, you'll recall, is titled "Eight Years Near Abdu'l-Baha", and is the memoir of Dr Mu'ayyad. In part 1, I focused on pages 1-88, or the first two chapters, because the work is over 300 pages long and I couldn't do justice to it by reviewing it all in one go. In part 2, I cover pages 89-176, which comprises chapters 3-5.

Now, I have to be strictly honest here and say that one doesn't read this work expecting a gripping narrative like a good novel. A person reads this memoir because they're keen to gain some insight particularly into Abdu'l-Baha. This means being prepared to do some work wading through text that isn't all that interesting - well, not to me anyway. This was particularly true of chapter 4. Ahang has done his best to make the narrative as easy to read as possible by adding useful footnotes and headings. This helps enormously, making it more informative than it otherwise would be. However, there are rewards for those prepared to persevere.

Chapter 3 is titled "Years of study in Beirut". By all accounts, Dr Mu'ayyad's years of study in Beirut were a difficult time for him. The impression you get is that most of his time was devoted to study and any 'spare' time he had was devoted to serving the Baha'is. The author says that in his second year at medical school, all went badly for him.

"The second year of my medical studies was filled with difficulties. First, I was required to pass the mid-studies examination by the medical faculty in addition to another test administered by an examining board of the Ottoman government, which came from Constantinople. Second, since there was a delay in the arrival of my stipend, my [financial] situation was growing critical, and I did not even have the twenty-five liras needed for the examination fee. Third, because of my immense workload, I became very ill, requiring hospitalization and medical attention. ... Every time a letter arrived from my father, it was filled with grievous and most unhappy tidings and lamentations. He informed me of the plunder of our house by the Sáláru’d-Dawlih and many other troubles that unceasingly surrounded them." (pp 91-92)

In the midst of his anguish, Dr Mu'ayyad wrote a heart-felt poem to Abdu'l-Baha, which he quotes some of in the text. Here's two stanzas from it, to give you the flavour:

"‘Abdu’l-Bahá, have mercy on me,
Sacrifice my life for Thee,
Sacrifice it for Thy locks,
Hold Thou my hand, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá," (p 92)

The reply from Abdu'l-Baha is fascinating - to me, anyway. He replies that: "... thou must employ this pure water [of poetry] in praise of our loving Lord, the Ancient Beauty and the Greatest Name ... since ‘Abdu’l-Bahá is but a drop, but the Greatest Name is the mighty Ocean. When you have praised the ocean, it will also encompass the drop." I am constantly surprised by the way the believers would laud and praise Abdu'l-Baha in the manner illustrated above. To me, Abdu'l-Baha's point is well taken and I don't understand why such verses were not written in praise of Baha'u'llah. Perhaps I can't identify with it because I've never met Abdu'l-Baha and, if I had, I would be writing poetry about him too. But in any case, despite Abdu'l-Baha's expressed feelings on the matter, the poem became popular and "was often sung in the gatherings, which brought great excitement and joy to all. The honored Hájí Mírzá Haydar-‘Alí, that love-intoxicated elder believer, would be filled with delight by hearing this chant." (p 94)

Another element of chapter 3, which contains a number sections each devoted to an event of the time, is the discussion on Mírzá Abú’l-Fadl. There is quite a bit on him, which was interesting and all news to me. One reason it interested me was discovering how it compared to the impressions of Abú’l-Fadl given by Ali Kuli Khan in his book "Summon up Remembrance". I'll never forget reading what Ali Kuli Khan said about Mírzá Abú’l-Fadl there. I don't own the book and so cannot quote from it. But, if I recall it correctly, I remember Ali Kuli Khan describing someone who worked at his writing something akin to the way a young man would approach an addiction to an on-line computer game. You see them on TV reports sometimes. They play for excessive amounts of time, between 12-24 hours or longer, without stopping or having any regard to their health. I recall Ali Kuli Khan saying that Mírzá Abú’l-Fadl's poor eating habits were of immense concern to the believers in America. So anyway, back to Dr Mu'ayyad's memoirs, he also paints a picture of a person who worked compulsively and had scant regard for his well-being, and was frail due to ill health. Nevertheless, Abú’l-Fadl refused all offers of help. The believers complained to Abdu'l-Baha, who instructed them not to interfere. The irony of this, from what I can see, is that Dr Mu'ayyad records Mírzá Abú’l-Fadl lamenting toward the end of his life:

"If anyone spoke his praise, Mírzá Abú’l-Fadl would become very embarrassed and only speak of his own shortcomings, particularly expressing his immense regret over his weakness and ill state. He would note that because of these infirmities, he was not able to serve the Faith the way his heart demanded. He used to say, “My earnest desire is to be granted a thousand lives a day so I could sacrifice them all in the path of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá!"" (p 100)

This issue is close to the bone for me, a writer who has devoted her life to writing for Baha'u'llah. You are always saying to yourself: how can I wring out of my life the greatest volume in the time allotted to me? About four years ago, I had my life set up so that every second was accounted for. I became so overworked that my back gave out and I was facing the very real prospect of being flat on my back in bed unable to move. The thought of being sort of paralysed terrified me and forced me to question what I was doing. What if I lost my health and could no longer write? The pointlessness of it all began to dawn on me. It has taken until now for me to set reasonable goals for the day, which allow time for variation, rest, prayer and slow food. One of the reasons I was driven by overwork to a state of ill health was because of the example of selflessness found in those like Abú’l-Fadl. His characteristics are held up to the community as examples of the way we should be. And yet, I have come to see that I must see these virtues in the light of the principle of moderation in all things, which balances them against other competing requirements.

In any case, Dr Mu'ayyad includes in his discussion on Abú’l-Fadl the details of how Abú’l-Fadl came to write a long refutation in response to Kitab Nuqtatu'l-Kaf, a manuscript that was published in 1910 by the Cambridge Professor E G Browne, but not written by him. Dr Mu'ayyad saw an advertisement for the publication in a Jesuit magazine and told Abú’l-Fadl about this. Unfortunately, Ahang's notes don't explain what is in this book. But it must be objectionable indeed, given Abú’l-Fadl's response when he heard that it had been published. The first thing he did was ask Dr Mu'ayyad to go to a Beirut publisher and ask him for "the cost of printing a book, about one thousand pages, on good quality paper and large fonts, so that I can start composing it and give it to him section by section for printing." (p 97) He also wrote down a question for Professor Browne and asked Dr Mu'ayyad to have all the Beirut students sign it (evidently, he understood the principle of strength in numbers). Dr Mu'ayyad explains in a footnote that: "The question posed to Prof Browne by Mírzá Abú’l-Fadl through the students of Beirut was about the source and authenticity of the book [The Nuqtatu’l-Káf]. He [Prof Browne] replied that he had acquired it from the library of [Comte Joseph A.] Gobineau. It is evident that Muhammad Khan Qazvíní had interpolated the text and deposited it in the library. (HM)." The memoirs tell us that there had been an attempt to tie authorship of the manuscript to the martyred Haji Mirza Jani of Kashan.

And so Abú’l-Fadl began composing his refutation. And when it was getting close to completion, Abdu'l-Baha was cabled for permission to have it published. He cabled saying that a Persian and an English version must be published in Cairo. Abú’l-Fadl set out for Cairo with his incomplete manuscript, but died there before finishing it. Now, here's the astonishing thing. During Abú’l-Fadl's final days, he was unconscious, and while in this state "a section of this manuscript was stolen by Dr. Amínu’lláh Faríd, son of Mírzá Asadu’lláh Isfahání, who wished to publish it in his own name and thereby gain universal notice." (p 99) !!! What an extraordinary thing to do! What a scurrilous act!

The memoirs go on to tell us more about this Dr. Faríd, and his list of offences makes modern-day disenrollees look like angels. In a section devoted to the reasons Dr. Faríd was expelled from the community by Abdu'l-Baha, one is left jaw-dropped at what this scoundrel got up to. He gave Abdu'l-Baha one massive headache, even though Abdu'l-Baha had raised him and paid for his education. Pages 104-107 are devoted to an outline of his transgressions. Dr Mu'ayyad reports that Abdu'l-Baha was finally pushed to make these widely known to the community in order that believers might be protected. One of the problems was that Dr. Faríd was telling believers that he was the future guardian and Abdu'l-Baha's successor. He also succeeded in extracting vast sums of money from believers under false pretences. He even stole Abdu'l-Baha's seal and was using it to receipt donations he had obtained through misrepresentation.

Chapter 3 also contains a wonderful description of Abdu'l-Baha from the writer's point of view. It's a heart-warming account of how Abdu'l-Baha had this remarkable ability to be all things to all people. I'll quote the paragraph:

"While I was in the Holy Land, people from all strata, races, ethnicities and backgrounds, whether visitors, resident believers, easterners or westerners, would attain the presence of the Master. Each would ask his questions, which hardly ever resembled the ones posed by others. One inquirer had materialistic tendencies, another, philosophical proclivities. One would be religious and deeply attached to his convictions, while another was afire by the love of his country or was universalistic in his approach, and considered all people equal and the same. Some were black, others white, some from Asia, and some were European. While one talked of feminist movements and advocated women’s emancipation, another spoke of the subjugation of women and the advantages of multiple wives. One spoke of the needs of the proletariat, while another would ask the Master of communism. One wished to know about literature and poetry, another, about history and philosophy. One would ask about the traditions and prophecies, and sought solutions to complex problems, while another inquired about the meanings of abstruse passages in the Sacred Books – passages that had perplexed him for some time. One was Arab and would present the problem of Arab liberation, inquiring of its solution; another was Jewish and wished to know of the future of Palestine." (pp 119-120)

Chapter 5 is titled "Holy Land, Fall of 1914", and follows chapter 4 which chronicles Dr Mu'ayyad's visit to Germany. In chapter 5, the format changes into a diary rather than a narrative. I assume that Dr Mu'ayyad did this because while in Germany, he'd learned about how Europeans kept diaries. Chapter 5 contains a vast amount of material describing what Abdu'l-Baha did and said. Given that this installment of my review is long enough already, I won't go into details now, but may pick up on some ideas later on. I'll sign off for now with a few pithy comments that took my eye.

"The purpose of the divine teachings and exhortations is precisely this: to aid us to become perfect people. It is not merely for reading." (p 140)

"If the Blessed Beauty were in this world and I presented Him these letters from the believers in Germany, how jubiliant would He be!" (p 146)

"Seldom does it happen that both God and the people are pleased with someone." (p 151)

Sunday, 8 June 2008

Ahang's Witnesses: Volume 3, part 1

A few weeks ago, I decided I would begin reading in sequence the documents in the Witnesses to Babi and Baha'i History series, which Ahang Rabbani is in the process of putting up on his website at Ahang has researched and found important memoirs of people who witnessed aspects of Babi/Baha'i history and translated and annotated them. There are some 15 volumes in the series.

There's no understating the importance of the series. Firstly, Ahang is one of the Baha'i world's leading historians, and the series constitutes Ahang's lifelong work. His annotations help readers to understand the people mentioned, and the context for comments made, in the text. Secondly, the series is a way that Baha'is can get a really good feel for how things were back in the early days when the Bab, Baha'u'llah and Abdu'l-Baha were alive. My understanding of the general circumstances of their lives has been shaped a great deal by what I have read so far. For example, we know that soon after Baha'u'llah's death, Abdu'l-Baha's older brother, Mirza Muhammad-Ali, turned against him and made his life a misery. But the details of what he actually did and the impact it had on Abdu'l-Baha personally and on the Baha'i community is little known. The Guardian asked the Persian believers to write down their memoirs so that Baha'i history could be kept for future generations. He believed it was very important that we read these accounts so that we could get a better understanding of our religious history. For this reason, Ahang has translated, annotated and published these documents. Now, our job is to make use of them and take in what they have to offer. I'd love to see Baha'is downloading, reading and discussing them so that they can benefit from them and gain a more personal relationship with the central figures. To this end, I have decided to read the documents and put some highlights up on my blog.

When I went to Ahang's site to download volume 1, I found that it has not yet been completed and uploaded to the site. The first volume in the series that was available was volume 3, so I downloaded that instead. [I'll go back to volumes 1 and 2 when they appear.] Volume 3 is titled "Eight Years Near Abdu'l-Baha" and is the memoir of Dr Habib Mu'ayyad. His birth name was Habibu'llah, but Abdu'l-Baha later gave him the name Mu'ayyad (confirmed). He was born in Kirmanshah, Iran, in 1888, into a Baha'i family of Jewish descent. In 1907, he spent a month on pilgrimage with Abdu'l-Baha in Akka. He then moved to Beirut for study and work, associating with Abdu'l-Baha and other prominent believers of the time before his return to Iran in 1915. He wrote down his recollections of what happened and what Abdu'l-Baha did and said during these eight years. Ahang has used a selection of these notes as the basis of this document. Volume 3 is a substantial document, with over 300 pages. So far, I have read up to page 88. Because of the size, I've decided to begin my review with this first section, before reading on. That is why I've called this Volume 3, part 1.

The document begins with Habib Mu'ayyad's introduction. Here, he tells us that in recording his memoirs, he decided that the most important thing for him to record were his days in the holy land with Abdu'l-Baha and the friends. The other parts of his life were not included and must be left for another book. I can understand his reasoning here – of course those days in the holy land are the most important and certainly of greatest interest to Baha'is. But the statement left me thinking that the memoirs would be made up of a stream of accounts about this event and then that, without any revealing detail about how these events were viewed by the author. The result being a formula something like this: I did this and then I did that, and I saw this and that, and Abdul-Baha did this and said that, and it was all wonderful. Unfortunately, by leaving the truly personal out of the account, much of the meaning and significance of the events are lost. It makes the text hard to read, seeming to meander along and leaving you wondering why you should bother. For me, these are the issues I come up against when I am faced with reading these accounts. It has to do with the issue of what is biography and what is good biography. As a 21st century Western woman, I have very different ideas to a 19th century Iranian man about what good biography is. And so, as I expected, I did find myself struggling with the text for these reasons. But I persevered nonetheless, because the narrative is peppered with interesting insights that do reveal genuine personal impressions, even though an attempt has been made to eliminate that part of the experience, with the exception of the descriptions of personal cosmic wonder.

The narrative begins with Habib Mu'ayyad describing his journey out of Iran and his travels along the way, where he stayed in this and that town and with this and that famous Baha'i. Most events are described with great flourish. Habib Mu'ayyad recognises that he is caught up in cosmic events. It leaves you feeling as if nothing mundane ever happens to him. "Filled with joy and elation, we constantly gave thanks for the divine grace that was so abundantly showered upon us. With feelings of ecstasy and rapture we pondered how, through God's bounty, strangers were turned into age-old friends, how the means for the universal unity of men were provided and how spiritual brothers and sisters surrounded all His servants. How wondrous indeed was the field of love and how vast the realm of fellowship spread before us!" (pp12-13) And the believers he comes into contact with are described, no doubt justifiably, in equally exalted language. "After release from quarantine, we met the honoured Aqa Muhammad-Mustafa [Baghdadi], who was numbered among the firm and learned friends, possessed of poetic and cultured disposition, and in service to the Covenant and Testament was like a sharpened sword." (p17)

When Habib Mu'ayyad arrives in Akka, you get a sense from his account of what the place was actually like. "Filth and dirt enveloped everything. Unwashed Arabs and persistent mosquitoes were a source of great irritation." (p21) "[The] alleys were so narrow that if a pedestrian came from the opposite direction, we had to press our backs against the wall to let him pass."(p25) In a footnote, he tells us that "The congestion of Akka's fleas is well beyond the imagination of those that have not experienced it. I recall that while in Khan-i Umdan (the caravanserai), my feet were covered with them, much like wearing a black boot." (p25) Nevertheless, even this experience cannot escape the exalted language: "From the hair of its [Akka's] camels we inhaled the fragrance of life, and from its fleas we heard the melody of divine verses." (p25)

The end of chapter 1 and most of chapter 2 consist of Habib Mu'ayyad's accounts of what Abdu'l-Baha said while he was on this month-long pilgrimage. Again, in describing Abdu'l-Baha, he expresses himself using language of rapture: "Day and night I had the bounty of beholding Abdu'l-Baha'is countenance and drinking my fill of His engaging utterances. Sometimes I was thrilled to the depths of my soul and at other instances my tears flowed unceasingly. From the rapture of this wine of union, I was so intoxicated that I beheld no world save the realm of the spirit and the paradise above."(p25) I don't doubt that meeting Abdu'l-Baha is a cosmic spiritual experience that one would never get over. But the trouble with the language is that, when all experiences are described as being the most spiritual ever, the whole thing loses it impact, and you find yourself glossing over what ought to be a truly moving account.

What is illuminating is a comment Habib Mu'ayyad wrote about this pilgrimage later on in life in a preface to the memoirs of this time. He says: "At that time, I was neither overly concerned with spiritual issues, nor with matters pertaining to the world hereafter. My sole desire was to behold the luminous countenance of the Master, and, in a state of rapture, listen to him speak."(p33) When I read this, I was quite taken aback. It made me question the sincerity of what I'd read so far about his impressions of the pilgrimage. After all, he'd lead me to believe that it was beyond, well, everything, absolutely! In what state, I wondered, was he actually in? I struggled to understand how one could be interested in the "luminous countenance" of the Master on the one hand, and, on the other, not have a particular interest in spiritual issues. I think this shows the cultural differences between me and Habib Mu'ayyad. For example, a Western youth who knew nothing of the faith would only show interest in Abdu'l-Baha because s/he was interested in spiritual matters – the two would be synonymous. But someone brought up in the faith in Iran would be taught about Abdu'l-Baha from the cradle, before having a chance to form an opinion about spiritual issues. In any case, one reason I mention this is that the personal does leak out of the text despite the effort that's gone into keeping it out.

In another revealing passage on page 32, Habib Mu'ayyad tells us that he was asked to write a 500-word essay in English on the subject of the faith. The essay was to be used to determine whether his written English was sufficient for him to join the fifth year of high school. Habib Mu'ayyad describes how he went about this exercise: "Fortunately, as I had studied various [Baha'i] pamphlets and booklets received from the United States, I was familiar with such big and prestigious words as 'Manifestation' and 'Divine Civilization', and some others. At the appointed time, I quickly penned a section on the history of the Cause, the Most Great Manifestation, and sacrifices of the martyrs in Iran, and devoted another section to whatever of the teachings I recalled." This essay did impress the school board and Habib Mu'ayyad was allowed into the fifth year.

As I said, chapter 2 is devoted entirely to accounts of Abdu'l-Baha. This is another sticking point for me. I struggle to read account after account of Abdu'l-Baha preaching, and encouraging and exhorting the believers in one way or another. In themselves, there is nothing wrong with them. But what happens to me is that I gradually get the feeling that Abdu'l-Baha spent all his time preaching at people. Of course, this is ridiculous. But because the accounts are presented in this relentless manner, you can't help but feel preached at, and the person doing the talking, indirectly, is Abdu'l-Baha. I feel sure that the accounts of Abdu'l-Baha's talks and letters that are published in books have influenced the way I see him. I have had to work hard at eradicating this view of him and developing a nuanced view in its place. So, be ready for a steady stream of reports of what Abdu'l-Baha said – in chapter 2, anyway. Although, it must be remembered that what's reported isn't what he said word for word. It is filtered through Habib Mu'ayyad's memory and understanding.

Despite that, there are of course some interesting things that Abdu'l-Baha is supposed to have said. One recurring theme is the matter of the Jews coming back to the holy land. Abdu'l-Baha mentioned this often because he was talking to believers of Jewish descent. On page 29, he is reported to have said (remember, this is 1907):

"This land is Palestine. It is a Holy Land. Soon the Jewish people shall return to this land, and once more David's sovereignty and Solomon's splendour shall be made manifest. This is an explicit divine promise, and there is no doubt therein. The Jewish people will be made resplendent. They will gather under the banner of the Cause. All of these barren fields will become fertile and cultivated. The scattered tribes of the Jewish people will be united. This region will become a center of industry and commerce, and will be refined and populated. Of this there is no doubt."

Abdu'l-Baha is reported to have made an interesting comment about Wahhabism.

"The Egyptian chiefs want to become Wahhabi and promote Wahhabi convictions. Perchance they hope to resist European expansion through wars, violence, confrontations and slaughter. However, they are increasingly powerless and ineffective. They use this as a distraction. 'A drowning man will cling to anything.' But it will bear no result, none whatsoever, since its foundation is infirm and not based on divine teachings. These very designs will cause their own division and demise. They must first understand what brought about the progress of Islam and then follow suit. Their goals will not be achieved through political methods or nationalistic sentiments, especially when they are imitating others. The initiator is of course superior to the imitator. 'And they who were foremost on earth – are the foremost still. These are they who shall be brought nigh to God.'[Qur'an 56:10-11] 'And God will never forget the one who has rendered victorious His cause. There is no demise for him, and the converse holds as well. These people will not become righteous at the end unless they become righteous at the beginning.'" (pp79-80)

So there we go, there is a comment by Abdu'l-Baha about what is now called 'Islamic fundamentalism'. I particularly like the comment in the last sentence: "These people will not become righteous at the end unless they become righteous at the beginning." This was my objection to Bush invading Iraq – putting aside the fact that he was lying about WMDs, which were his principal justification. It was clear that Bush was acting out of greed, self-interest and self-aggrandisement. How could anything good come out of that? If it's bad at the start, it's not going to miraculously turn overnight into a fully-functioning democracy in Iraq.

But, speaking of democracy, Abdu'l-Baha is reported to have made the following comments about the Constitutional Revolt in Iran.

"Tihran is in great agitation. In truth, the late Muzaffaru'd-Din Shah did all he could for his subjects. But it would have been better to have first educated the people of Iran, and then have given them liberty. It is like many well-fed and trained horses that have been raised on a ranch and then all of a sudden released and set free. The result is chaos and disorder.

Now in Tihran they are beating, killing and cursing each other. They desire civilization, and indeed civil society is a good thing: but it must depend on spiritual education. Otherwise, the outward evidences of civilization are the Krupp cannons, Henry Martin guns and other destructive weapons. This is not civilization."

I could go on with quoting passages, but I'll finish with this one, which emphasises the importance of building the Mashriqu'l-Adhkar. The subject came up about Habib Mu'ayyad's father, who had built a hostel so that the Baha'is and others had a place to stay when they travelled through the city. Abdu'l-Baha loved the idea of the believers building a hostel in their towns so that Baha'is would know they had a place to stay when they travelled. However, in the middle of this enthusiastic support for building hostels, Abdu'l-Baha pulls back and says that, before building hostels, the believers must build the Mashriqu'l-Adhkar first.

"This is very wonderful! The friends of God must do the same in every town and hamlet and provide a befitting place for the comfort of the itinerant believers so that when they go from town to town, they know that in a fixed location such hospitality is provided for them. It would be as if they had a personal residence in that spot and thereby would enjoy its comfort and be surrounded by tranquility. However, the friends must first build a Mashriqu'l-Adhkar, and only then a hostel. 'Ishqabad's Mashriqu'l-Adhkar was built in the midst of tumult and turmoil, and yet it is a mother that will constantly give birth. The Mashriqu'l-Adhkar is a magnet that attracts divine confirmations and draws divine assistance." (p39)

But the idea that the believers should build a Mashriqu'l-Adhkar in every town and hamlet has been lost, even though Abdu'l-Baha was unequivocal in his call for it. And, I think, the confirmations and divine assistance that go with it have been lost too.

Sunday, 25 May 2008

Infallibility 5

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.

Miracles and Metaphors

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)

Monday, 19 May 2008

Response to Priscilla

Hi Priscilla,

Many thanks for writing your thoughtful comments on my blog Infallibility 4. When I saw that you had left your comments on Baha'is Online, I decided it was probably time I put aside my misgivings about comments and open up my blog to comments. Although, the function is moderated and I don't plan to let just anything on. I value my time and that of my readers too much.

I think you have found some flaws in my argument.

You said: "I'm having a bit of difficulty with the section of this piece on the "physical world" and fallibility/infallibility. I wonder if “physical world” is not quite what you mean or if you mean it in a way I do not understand. Perhaps you can clarify."

Yes, I can see the source of the confusion now. By "physical world", I mean this world as opposed to the next one, which is a spiritual world. The Arabic word "al-dunya" means this world and is used to refer to the world in which we live this, our first life before we die and move on to the next one. It includes the entirety of the physical universe and all that is in it and not just nature.

"Both the definitions of infallibity that you give assume a judging, acting consciousness, something the physical world (trees, rocks, stars, dog turds, water molecules, etc.), as far as I know, does not have. Since I don’t see how the physical world can err, be deceived, sin, or disbelieve, etc, I don’t see how it can be “the very opposite” of infallible in either the propositional inerrancy sense of the term or in the sense that you attribute to Baha’u’llah."

Yes, you're right. It was a random thought that should have been removed in the editing for the very reason you give. I'm still nutting these issues out myself of course, and sometimes random ideas that come during writing lead to important ideas. I thought this one had promise! I think I was probably taken by the way the randomness of the world made claims to propositional inerrancy seem just silly.

"As I think about it more, I realize that I have been under the impression that the Baha’i writings (somewhere I can’t locate at the moment, perhaps because the passages don’t exist) give the idea that the physical/natural world perfectly reflects the divine to the degree that it can because it has no choice but to do so. (And also that we humans have the capacity to more fully reflect the divine, but also the free will that allows us not to.) This idea of the “physical world” seems to me to be more in-line with the idea of infallibility you attribute to Baha’u’llah than opposite to it."

Yes, the writings do say that nature perfectly reflects the divine. Here is the classic on that one:

"Say: Nature in its essence is the embodiment of My Name, the Maker, the Creator. Its manifestations are diversified by varying causes, and in this diversity there are signs for men of discernment. Nature is God's Will and is its expression in and through the contingent world. It is a dispensation of Providence ordained by the Ordainer, the All-Wise. Were anyone to affirm that it is the Will of God as manifested in the world of being, no one should question this assertion. It is endowed with a power whose reality men of learning fail to grasp. Indeed a man of insight can perceive naught therein save the effulgent splendour of Our Name, the Creator. Say: This is an existence which knoweth no decay, and Nature itself is lost in bewilderment before its revelations, its compelling evidences and its effulgent glory which have encompassed the universe." (Baha'u'llah: Tablets of Baha'u'llah, p142)

"I would note, too, that Muhammad’s error in stopping the manual fertilization of date trees was in ignoring the predictability of changes in the physical world, not an outcome of its liability to 'change in any way at any time.' It seems in the examples you give that it is human choice and consciousness that are contingent, not 'the physical world.' Of course, we are part of the physical world, too . . . but I don’t think our part can really be generalized to all of it, to the very nature of 'the physical world.'"

Yes, what you say has made me realise that those were poor examples of my point. The reason I like those stories is the last comment from Muhammand that: 'You are more knowledgeable about your world.' This points nicely to ideas I want to discuss next. I will argue that infallibility is a virtue not a knowledge, like compassion is a virtue but not a knowledge of the world. Although, at the same time, we might say that a person who is compassionate has knowledge, but it is different to, say, being able to predict earthquakes. But I won't say any more because I'll end up running away with myself.

Friday, 16 May 2008

Infallibility 4

Infallibility and the idea of never being wrong
In earlier instalments of my infallibility series, I have argued that infallibility means what Baha'u'llah says it means: being guarded against sin, rebellion, impiety, disbelief, joining partners with God and the like. In this instalment, I want to begin exploring the common understanding Baha'is have about infallibility - that it means never being wrong. At some later point, I will compare it with what Baha'u'llah meant by the term.
The Shorter Oxford Dictionary tells us that the English word 'infallible' means: "of a person or judgement etc: not liable to err or be deceived". The idea here is that the person or judgement is guaranteed to be right. When we say in English that something is infallible, we are thinking to ourselves: we can rely on this thing because it's accurate - it always gets it right. Characteristic of this understanding is that it does not allow for a grey area. If something gets it wrong, we'll quickly say that it's fallible. Something can't be usually infallible or 90 percent infallible. It is either infallible or it is not. The concept of infallibility is understood in the same way as the concept of uniqueness. Something is either unique or it is not; it is one of a kind or it is not. So, an important aspect to the meaning of the English concept of infallibility is that it is an all-or-nothing affair. It does not admit of degrees.
This understanding is reflected in John Hatcher's article on infallibility: "Infallibility does not admit degrees. That is, a statement is either infallible or it is not." Hatcher is emphasising the very idea that infallibility is not a grey area, it is an all-or-nothing affair, a statement or advice is either infallible or it is not. Note that it is not usual, as Hatcher has done here, to assign infallibility to a statement or advice; usually we say that a person or institution is infallible. What is likely intended is that a statement or advice from an infallible source is guaranteed to be right, end of story.
This position is often referred to by its critics as 'propositional inerrancy'. 'Proposition' here simply means a statement or assertion. The idea is that a person is propositionally inerrant if that person's statements or assertions are never wrong. I think the common Baha'i view on infallibility is wider even than this, for the common view is not only that the House's statements and assertions are inerrant but that its guidance and decisions are too. Despite this, I will label the common view on infallibility 'propositional inerrancy' so that I can easily refer to it and distinguish it from other positions.
Having thought about propositional inerrancy a great deal, I've discovered that one could write a whole book about it. Issues associated with it spring off in all directions. I don't intend to try to tackle them all. In this instalment, I'll deal with some and cover others later. Here I will look at issues associated with the contingency of the physical world.
The common criticism of the position that John Hatcher argues for is that people go for it because it provides them with certainty. As Sen McGlinn so aptly put it, by aligning ourselves with something infallible, we guarantee that we are "not-wrong" ourselves. It is, he continues, "a way of short-circuiting the critical faculty and banishing doubt and reflection". If we rely on something infallible, then we don't have to think about any issue ourselves. It's easy.
A fundamental problem with propositional inerrancy is that it runs completely contrary to the way the physical world works. The physical world is contingent. God created it that way. The Shorter Oxford defines 'contingent' as: "of uncertain occurrence; liable to happen or not". If we put that idea with the physical world, we get a world that is made up of happenings that have occurred, that may or may not occur and that may change in any way at any time. It is a world where things are uncertain and not reliable at all. If anything, the contingency of the world makes it the very opposite to infallible. It's easy to see, then, that if we take propositional inerrancy and apply it to an aspect of the contingent world, it cuts a path of certainty through the morass of life. Even if certainty is not what motivates people to believe in propositional inerrancy, there can be no doubt that generating a realm of certainty is a natural consequence of the position.
Is certainty in a contingent world possible? Best place to look for it is in relation to the prophets. For them, do we find a realm of certainty that has banished the contingency of the world to outside its borders? In what follows, I will look at some prophets and at Baha'i central figures and identify situations where, in my view, they were not propositionally inerrant. Note that I am not arguing that they were not 'infallible'. I'm arguing that they were not propositionally inerrant. Note also that I am not trying to be disrespectful of the prophets. I am just trying to show the reality of the situations they faced.
To start with, we have the story of Noah that Baha'u'llah recounts in the Kitab-i Iqan (para 7). Baha'u'llah tells us that, several times, Noah promised victory to his followers and prophesied the hour. Each time, the prophecies failed and this caused some of his followers to leave. Here is an example of a prophet's fallibility. He made statements and they proved to be wrong, and this is confirmed by Baha'u'llah himself. In fact, Baha'u'llah tells us that God actually caused the prophecies to fail (para 8).
You might be saying: yes, but Noah is a minor prophet and not one endowed with constancy. I argue that the principle still applies. Let's look at a couple of stories about Muhammad:
"Ibn Ishaq, who is said to have been a Shi'ite, relates two revealing early Muslim stories about the Prophet Muhammad. One is that at one of the battles with the Meccans, the Prophet staked out a position on a plain at the bottom of some hills. One of his companions asked him, 'Is this from God or is it your idea?' Muhammad allowed as how it was his own idea. The companion said, 'In that case, I suggest we take the high ground.' And the Muslims did, and they won. On another occasion the Prophet noticed that in Medina the date cultivators hurried things along by manually fertilizing the female date trees with pollen from the males. He found this human/plant sexuality disturbing and ordered it to cease. Of course, the date crop was awful the following year. When the date farmers complained to him, he admitted that perhaps his intervention had been an error. 'Antum a`lam bi dunyakum,' he said: 'You are more knowledgeable about your world.'" (cited by Juan Cole, email message to Talisman 02 Aug 1998)
And what about the Bab? The Bab told his followers that he would go to the Shrine of Husayn in the Atabat (Iraq) after his pilgrimage to Mecca, to make a crucial declaration of his mission to a gathering of his followers. The Babis placed huge weight on this public declaration, believing it to be the fulfilment of the centuries-old prophecy that the Qa'im would come and defeat his enemies completely. However, persecutions in the Atabat at the time had become serious and this caused the Bab to call the meeting off and he went home to Shiraz instead. This was a serious challenge to the faith of the early believers. Their expectation that the Qa'im would triumph over his enemies was not borne out and this caused them to doubt the Bab's authenticity. They interpreted this turn of events as proof that the Bab was fallible. He had arranged a momentous gathering, but had not proved himself able to overcome the contingencies thrown up to prevent it. (For details about this story, see Abbas Amanat: "Resurrection and Renewal", pp 250-254)
A good example from Baha'u'llah can be found in the Kitab-i Iqan. Baha'u'llah clearly states there that when he left Baghdad for the mountains of Kurdistan, he had no intention of returning. But, as he puts it, his "mortal conceptions" and "human designs" were overridden by God and he was summoned to return:
"Alone, We communed with Our spirit, oblivious of the world and all that is therein. We knew not, however, that the mesh of divine destiny exceedeth the vastest of mortal conceptions, and the dart of His decree transcendeth the boldest of human designs. None can escape the snares He setteth, and no soul can find release except through submission to His will. By the righteousness of God! Our withdrawal contemplated no return, and Our separation hoped for no reunion. The one object of Our retirement was to avoid becoming a subject of discord among the faithful, a source of disturbance unto Our companions, the means of injury to any soul, or the cause of sorrow to any heart. Beyond these, We cherished no other intention, and apart from them, We had no end in view. And yet, each person schemed after his own desire, and pursued his own idle fancy, until the hour when, from the Mystic Source, there came the summons bidding Us return whence We came. Surrendering Our will to His, We submitted to His injunction." (Iqan, p 251)
What are we to make of this? Baha'u'llah sets out with the intention of not returning. If we'd been on the spot at the time and could have asked him what he was doing, every indication is that he would have said something like: I'm going to the mountains of Kurdistan in order to avoid being the subject of discord and I do not intend to come back. But that was the fallible plan of a mortal and a human, which didn't turn out as planned. Baha'u'llah even admits here that he did not know that God would override his plan not to return.
Moving from the prophets to Abdu'l-Baha, we have the issue of the Guardianship. Shoghi Effendi was unable to appoint a successor because no suitable candidate existed among those eligible and this caused the Guardianship to lapse. This was not anticipated by Abdu'l-Baha. The Will and Testament itself testifies to the fact that Abdu'l-Baha believed the Guardianship would last through the centuries.
As for the House of Justice, the Guardian himself did not consider it to be propositionally inerrant. This is clear from the following statement in World Order of Baha'u'llah, where the Guardian envisages the possibility that the House of Justice might make a law that he believed was not in the spirit of Baha'u'llah's teachings:
"Though the Guardian of the Faith has been made the permanent head of so august a body he can never, even temporarily, assume the right of exclusive legislation. He cannot override the decision of the majority of his fellow-members, but is bound to insist upon a reconsideration by them of any enactment he conscientiously believes to conflict with the meaning and to depart from the spirit of Baha'u'llah's revealed utterances." (Shoghi Effendi: World Order of Baha'u'llah, p 150)
The point of these stories is that, even for the prophets and chosen ones, the contingent world was not made certain for them, despite their privileged spiritual knowledge. Events they expected to happen did not always eventuate. The contingency of the world did get in the way. Baha'u'llah has much to say about the contingency of the world. But I have not found anywhere where he says that God makes the contingent world constant for believers. On the contrary, Baha'u'llah explains that the contingency of the world is there for a purpose and plays an important part in God's plan. In explanation, he says that God causes the prophets to get it wrong, and appear powerless and fallible in the face of contingency in order to test the faith of the believers. What do they have their faith in - in the world or in God? In his discussion about Noah and the fact that God caused his prophecies to fail, Baha'u'llah says:
"from time immemorial even unto eternity the Almighty hath tried, and will continue to try, His servants, so that light may be distinguished from darkness, truth from falsehood, right from wrong..." (para 8)
Interesting, isn't it, that God should cause these doubts to occur in the minds of believers, in order to distinguish right from wrong? What exactly could be "wrong" here? I would say that what's wrong is placing one's faith in the world being certain. This is wrong because it conflicts with the principles that God does whatever God wills, and that God's hands are never chained up. When you think about it, there is actually nothing 'wrong' about not being right all the time. Who cares? There is no lack of virtue in it. But there is something truly wrong about putting one's faith in the world being the way you expect it to be.
"Say: By God, you are only as a wayfarer resting in the shade of a tree. But that shade is of necessity ephemeral, and you must not repose your confidence in it or in anything that will pass away. Put your trust in what does not perish, in what endures in the immortality of God, the everlasting, the eternal, the glorious. Have you found that your mornings are like your evenings, or that your youth is like your old age? All this is a reminder to you, Muslims. The contradictions apparent in all things were only ordained to remind you of the impermanence of your selves, so that you might become aware of it and not be obdurate." Baha'u'llah: City of Radiant Acquiescence, para 11

Commentary on Tablet of the Son

 Commentary on Tablet of the Son