Sunday, 24 February 2008

The real Baha'u'llah

Yesterday I was interested to read a comment that appeared on Baquia's blog, which had been pointed out to me by Steve. It is written by Andrew Carter, who I interviewed for this blog last year. Back then, he was saying that he believed Baha'u'llah was a manifestation of God. But it seems that he has changed his mind. He says:

"I was once swayed by the idealism and casuistry of certain Baha’i writers who insist that Baha’u'llah was actually a teacher of inner freedom and transformation. I no longer believe this. No matter how one gilds the lily, Baha’u'llah was not a spiritual guide, but rather a religious dictator, and the religion he created expresses the thematic continuity of his authoritarianism." Andrew

This accusation that Baha'u'llah is a "religious dictator" reminded me of a similar accusation made by someone else many years ago. At that time, Juan Cole wrote an enlightening and moving defence of Baha'u'llah and posted it on H-Baha'i. I thought it would be timely, given the above, to repost that message here. A key thing that comes through for me is that the authoritarianism we see in the Baha'i community today is assumed to reflect the way Baha'u'llah was. But this isn't the case.

Date: Wed, 16 Jul 1997 11:55:34 -0400
From: jrcole@... (Juan R. I. Cole)
Subject: H-Bahai Baha'u'llah's authority

I wanted to follow up on the nature of Baha'u'llah's authority in the 19th century Baha'i community. XX has presented an image of it as absolute, and many have agreed with him. But I don't find in the historical record such a situation.

There are two sorts of lattitude I'd like to point to. The first is lattitude of relatively free thought. Because Baha'u'llah accepted Ibn al-`Arabi's and Rumi's Sufi notion of standpoint epistemology with regard to metaphysics, he did not believe there was only one right answer to any particular doctrinal question. Which answer one gave would depend on one's own "maqam" or spiritual station, and upon one's degree of spiritual discernment or "idrak." Since maqams and idrak were so numerous and disparate, in Baha'u'llah's view, he did not expect the Baha'is all to adhere to the same theological beliefs at the same time. That is why he refused to intervene in the dispute between Jamal-i Burujirdi (who insisted that Baha'u'llah was man, not God) and other prominent Baha'i teachers (some of whom saw Baha'u'llah as a manifestation of God's very essence). This tablet and Khazeh's translation is in Baha'i Studies Bulletin and also on my Web page. It is very instructive. (cf. Iqtidarat p. 219). One prominent Baha'i in Iran told Browne (I think it was Mirza Haydar `Ali Isfahani) that Baha'u'llah was just "a man, perfect in humanity." Browne also reports a good deal of wine drinking and drug use among the Baha'is, if my memory serves.

Along the same lines, in Iqtidarat, p. 100, Baha'u'llah tells the Baha'is who keep writing him with questions that *they* are the springs of his own discourse, and that they should strive to cleanse their water of idle fancies so that they can answer their questions *themselves*:

ta az shuma: khu:d dar amtha:l-i i:n masa:'il-i mas'u:lih java:bha:-yi muhkamih-'i mutqanih za:hir shavad

In this dispensation, he says, all bear the divine effulgence according to their own capacity, and all are able to discern the truths in the revealed scripture. This is an encouragement to all Baha'is without exception to develop their own midrash on the Baha'i scriptures and to try to answer questions for themselves. This is very different from the attitude of some authoritarian leaders that everything must be referred to them, and they must have the option of settling all important questions.

There are also many instances where Baha'is wrote to Baha'u'llah with local disputes about, say, the disposition of property, and he wrote back that they should consult (mushavirih) with the local community and follow the consensus that was reached. Several such letters are in the later volumes of Athar-i Qalam-i A`la (vols. 6-7).

So I would argue that Baha'u'llah farmed out a lot of authority to individuals and to local communities, and often declined to intervene decisively in disputes back in Iran. I don't see this sort of lattitude as terribly authoritarian, though I agree that later Baha'i tradition may have imagined it that way.

From another point of view, I find all sorts of evidence that the Baha'is very often ignored Baha'u'llah's advice and instructions, and did as they pleased. A very serious such instance was when, in 1872, some Baha'is in Akka came to him and said they wanted to kill Sayyid Muhammad Isfahani, the Azali who had been sent by the Ottomans to spy on the Baha'is. Baha'u'llah strictly forbade them, according to Mirza Ja`far Qazvini in the Epitome translated by Browne (Materials 54-55), but they went ahead and murdered the Azalis anyway. Baha'u'llah was very upset by all this, and sanctioned them both by refusing to intervene with the Ottoman authorities on their behalf, and by banishing them from his presence for a long time. But some of the murderers at least, such as Ustad Salmani, eventually were able to rejoin the community. My point, in any case, is that even these close companions of Baha'u'llah would not listen to him on such a serious matter!

There are many other instances of cavalier disobedience. Baha'u'llah wanted meetings back in Iran kept very small, but his emissaries reported back to him that he was regularly being ignored and that meetings of 40 and more were not uncommon. Baha'u'llah wanted the Baha'is not to bicker over doctrinal and other matters, but they went ahead and did, anyway. The historical records and the Tablets of Baha'u'llah and letters of Khadimu'llah are full of such details. Baha'u'llah even confesses at one point that his biggest headache was the 300 Baha'is living in the Akka area, who had their ups and downs (Iqtidara 26-27). Obviously, they were not causing him such grief because they were kowtowing to a despotic Prophet figure.

Very often, Baha'u'llah would respond to major disputes by telling the parties to work it out themselves, or by declining to comment (as with his non-response to the controversy caused by Jamal-i Burujirdi's plan for mass Baha'i emigration to Russia). I see him as having exercised moral suasion, as having attempted to persuade, as having sometimes issued rather stern counsels or reproaches. But his authority was only moral, and he was far more often ignored than Baha'is nowadays would like to admit. (Indeed, as time has gone on, some of his major emphases, such as standpoint epistemology and its accompanying tolerance, answering one's own questions, and the value of democracy, have been almost erased within the community, so that he is less and less a real authority and more and more just an icon to whom lip service is paid). There was a core of very devoted and sincere Baha'is, of course, who engaged in an almost court-like etiquette around Baha'u'llah. But as far as I can tell, these were a minority. One forgets the rude, the insolent, the unbalanced, the petty squabblers, the independent of mind, the wine-bibbers. One forgets that most Baha'is of the time were very lightly socialized to Baha'i values, and did a lot of dissimulating and picking and choosing. Baha'u'llah had more authority among Baha'is than did a mujtahid like Mirza Hasan Shirazi among Shi`ites, but it was authority and not power, and it probably worked practically in many of the same ways--persuasion, tacking with the wind, encouraging people to get along.


Juan Cole
U of Michigan

Be fair: are these the words of a "religious dictator"? If these reflect the characteristics of a dictator, then may we have more of them!

"By Myself, the True One, O Ali! The fire that hath inflamed the heart of Baha is fiercer than the fire that gloweth in thine heart, and His lamentation louder than thy lamentation. Every time the sin committed by any one amongst them was breathed in the Court of His Presence, the Ancient Beauty would be so filled with shame as to wish He could hide the glory of His countenance from the eyes of all men, for He hath, at all times, fixed His gaze on their fidelity, and observed its essential requisites." (Baha'u'llah: Gleanings, CXLII)

Tuesday, 19 February 2008

Interesting passages in the Qur'an

I've been reading the Qur'an now for several months. Baha'u'llah says we're to read the writings every morning and evening. Over 25 years, I've managed to read an awful lot of Baha'u'llah's writings! And I began looking around to see what else I could read. I've read the Gospels and now I'm onto the Qur'an. Every evening, I read from the Qur'an. I didn't start at the beginning; I started at the Surah of Hood because Baha'u'llah mentions it in the Iqan. I've read just under half of the Qur'an - surahs 10-36, about 250 pages out of 650. I'm reading Arberry's translation, just because I have it on hand and because he's made an effort to make the English readable.

I've read enough now to start getting an impression of recurring themes. I'm starting to fall in love with the style, which is interesting because, at first, I struggled with the style and the way language is used. It certainly has a unique 'voice' and way of putting things! But after reading it for some months, I have become used to the style and the voice and started to see the beauty in passages that are repeated, which are often verses that describe attributes of God. The book also puts up some very sophisticated arguments and makes insightful comments about the positions unbelievers took in response to Muhammad. After striking a few of these, I got out my trusty pencil and began underlining them as I went along. I thought I'd share some of these with you.

One of the themes of the Qur'an is that God is One and we must not set up associates with Him. This leads to verses in which God points out distinctions between Himself and any potential associate; for example, "16:20 Those whom they invoke besides Allah create nothing and are themselves created." This same idea is also found here: "7:191 Do they indeed ascribe to Him as partners things that can create nothing, but are themselves created?" I particularly relish these passages because I think the Baha'is have set up the House of Justice as a partner to God; they see its every whim as the road to salvation and success. These quotes are God reminding them of why the House is no such thing. For starters, it can't create anything at all. But not only that, it can't remove affliction from the community: "Say: 'Call on those you asserted apart from Him; they have no power to remove affliction from you, or to transfer it.' Those they call upon are themselves seeking the means to come to their Lord..." (17:55-56) God reminds us that the House of Justice has no power to change the fortunes of the community. Like the rest of us, it must also appeal to God. And again: "36:23 Should I take to worshipping [other] deities beside Him? [But then,] if the Most Gracious should will that harm befall me, their intercession could not in the least avail me, nor could they save me."

Here's a passage that reminds me of those who have lost their faith in Baha'u'llah because of the unjust deeds of the Baha'i administration: "29:10 Then there are among men such as say, 'We believe in Allah'; but when they suffer affliction in (the cause of) Allah, they treat men's oppression as if it were the Wrath of Allah. And if help comes (to thee) from thy Lord, they are sure to say, 'We have (always) been with you!' Does not Allah know best all that is in the hearts of all creation?" This speaks to me of those who have become Baha'is saying "We believe" but then when they are treated unjustly by men (ie, the Baha'i administration) in the cause of God, they blame God and lose faith. Interestingly, this proves that the House is viewed as a partner of God, because injustice from the House is considered a shortcoming on the part of the Divine. But the Qur'an is pointing out that the deeds of men are different to that of God. It is also pointing out that some people who claim to believe only do so in favourable circumstances. You see, if the Baha'i administration hadn't lost its way as it has, those who have now left the Faith because of it would still be in the Faith saying "We believe!". In which case, what would that testimony amount to?

This is an interesting one, which pertains to generosity and charity: "36:47 Thus, when they are told, 'Spend on others out of what God has provided for you as sustenance,' those who are bent on denying the truth say unto those who believe, 'Shall we feed anyone whom, if [your] God had so willed, He could have fed [Himself]? Clearly, you are but lost in error!'" This argument uses a fascinating piece of logic; it turns the logic of God in the Qur'an against the believers: why should I spend a cent on the poor when God could provide for them if He willed? If God is all-powerful, then why should I bother? Well, I guess the unbelievers have a point here, except that the Qur'an is emphatic about our duty to help the poor, so there's no way out really. When it comes to it, we are exhorted to help the poor because it's good for us spiritually to do so. It's not as if God could not eliminate all poverty in a heartbeat. However, there is one area where I think the logic does apply and that's where people don't want to believe. If a person chooses not to believe, then the Qur'an tells us that we can do nothing about it for only God can make a person see.

I loved this: "36:66-7 And had We willed, We verily could have quenched their eyesight so that they should struggle for the way. Then how could they have seen? And had We willed, We verily could have fixed them in their place, making them powerless to go forward or turn back." The verses say to me, if God wanted to, He could remove the eyesight of the unbelievers, but if He did that, how could they see the path (should they chose to do so)? And if He stopped them in their path of error, how could they return to Him (if they chose to)? That got me thinking about the idea of seeing with one's own eyes. It's not quite the point the Qur'an is making here, but it's related. If we are to see the Baha'i revelation with the eyes of the House of Justice, and take as gospel all that it says, then effectively we obliterate our own eyes in favour of others. But this is precisely what I hear God saying that He won't do. He could have removed their eyes, but such a person cannot see at all. Not only can they not see the wrong path (for that's the purpose here, to protect people from error) but they can't see the straight path either. If one does not use one's own eyes, then one sees nothing at all.

And here, I think, is a good one for those who don't believe that God created us or that we pass on after death to the next world: "36:78-9 36:78 And he makes comparisons for Us, and forgets his own (origin and) creation: He says, 'Who can give life to (dry) bones and decomposed ones (at that)?' Say, 'He will give them life Who created them for the first time! for He is Well-versed in every kind of creation!'" I think this is a cracker. If life can appear once, why can't it appear again? If you don't know where the life you see now has come from, how do you know it can't appear again or in other ways that are outside your understanding?

I'll finish off with this pithy thought for those who have borne false testimony against me: "34:49 Falsehood originates not, nor brings again." In other words, you cannot build a flourishing Baha'i community on calumnies told about others, nor can you restore a degenerating one.

Monday, 4 February 2008

Infallibility 1

I've decided to discuss at length the concept of infallibility. I think misunderstandings about infallibility are doing incalculable damage to the Baha'i community, and, contrary to what my detractors say about my hating the faith, I actually care about nothing more.
"Every age hath its own problem, and every soul its particular aspiration. The remedy the world needeth in its present-day afflictions can never be the same as that which a subsequent age may require. Be anxiously concerned with the needs of the age ye live in, and center your deliberations on its exigencies and requirements." (Baha'u'llah: Gleanings, CVI)
Sen McGlinn wisely has concerned himself with misunderstandings in the Baha'i community about church and state, demonstrating beyond any doubt that Baha'u'llah never intended the Baha'i institutions to morph into state governments. In a similar way, I want to focus on misunderstandings about infallibility, which prevent believers from fulfilling their spiritual capacity because, they are told, the covenant requires them to just follow the 'infallible' House of Justice.

A brief outline of mainstream understandings

For mainstream Baha'is, the concept of infallibility means being free from error in the sense of never being wrong; that is, being 100 percent 'right' (whatever that means) all the time. This capacity of being always right is an attribute of 'the hierarchy' only; no one else has it. It passes from God to Baha'u'llah, who is inherently infallible, then he 'confers' it on the faith's leaders of religion – previously Abdu'l-Baha and the Guardian, and now the institution of the House of Justice. This unerring guidance will go on through the centuries until the next manifestation comes, at which time the House of Justice will do its best to recognise the new manifestation (should be OK; it's infallible, after all) - but there's no knowing what the rest of humanity will do (see reference below).
I'll quote two passages to illustrate this thinking. The first one is from John Hatcher and it was published in the American Baha'i Online. It gives a neat overview of the understanding mainstream Baha'is are expected to have about infallibility and how it runs through the hierarchy.
"The Guardian called the revealed writings of Baha'u'llah the 'creative word' because His works constitute the holy scriptures of the Baha'i Faith. Of course, there are other 'authoritative' writings in the Baha'i Faith: the writings of 'Abdu'l-Baha, the writings of Shoghi Effendi, and the decisions and guidance of the Universal House of Justice.

What we may not understand is that while the writings of Baha'u'llah are regarded as the Revelation itself, these other sources are equally authoritative – they should likewise be regarded as infallible guidance from God.

Therefore, we correctly regard the Most Holy Book as containing the foundational laws for our personal lives, but the elucidation, interpretation, and implementation of these laws by 'Abdul-Baha, Shoghi Effendi, and the House of Justice should be regarded as having the same weight and authority.

Infallibility admits of no degrees. That is, a statement or advice is either infallible or it is not. Thus, in this dispensation, only Baha'u'llah as a Manifestation partakes of the 'Most Great Infallibility'; only He is inherently infallible. The infallibility of guidance from 'Abdu'l-Baha, Shoghi Effendi and the Universal House of Justice is conferred and derives from Baha'u'llah."

John Hatcher, "Letters from God". The Amercian Baha'i Online, 18 September 2007
Next, I quote from a Department of the Secretariat letter about how things will pan out when the next manifestation comes.
"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.

You are aware, of course, that one of the reasons for the appearance of a new Manifestation of God is to bring forth a spiritual renewal, as the former Dispensation would have passed through its stages of growth and reached its zenith. You can be sure that the Supreme Institution of the Faith, "under the care and protection of the Abhá Beauty, under the shelter and unerring guidance of His Holiness, the Exalted One", will exert every effort to recognize, when the time is ripe, the reality of the new Manifestation, and lead men to Him. How the majority of the people at that time will respond is a truth locked up in the treasury of God's knowledge."

Letter from the Department of the Secretariat, 1997
I could say much more about the mainstream understanding of infallibility, but I'll go into details as I move on.

We should start with what Baha'u'llah says

This may sound obvious to some, but a discussion on infallibility should start with what Baha'u'llah has to say about it.
This is an issue of methodology. Consideration of any matter concerning the faith should start with Baha'u'llah and what he has to say (if anything). My experience of Baha'is is that they don't understand this principle. They pick up a book like Lights of Guidance or a collection of letters from the House of Justice or the Guardian, read what it says and go no further. Worse, they read what is said in the Ruhi materials and take that as gospel.
If you think about it, it is logical. Is there any need to go any further, when what the House or the Guardian says is infallible anyway? Surely, their statements alone suffice for understanding. Moreover, if the House of Justice counsels the believers to study Ruhi, then surely the Ruhi materials must be right (infallible) also, because otherwise the House wouldn't recommend them.
This logic comes through in the passage above from John Hatcher. He tells us that the "other sources" – that is, those apart from Baha'u'llah - are "equally authoritative" as Baha'u'llah. So why bother to look up what Baha'u'llah has to say when the other sources will do? For many Baha'is, what Baha'u'llah says is difficult to understand anyway because it is assumes a knowledge of Islam.
It's not my intention to discuss the issue of methodology at length, but I do want to address it in order to explain why I begin my discussion on infallibility with Baha'u'llah and not jump in, for example, with passages of Abdu'l-Baha from Some Answered Questions or his Will and Testament, where most Baha'is begin and end their discussion on the topic.
The statement that 'other sources are equally authoritative as Baha'u'llah' is at best, horribly misleading, and, at worst, plain wrong. The principles that define the relationship between the word of Baha'u'llah and the sayings of other sources are in many ways the same as those that define the relationships between the various institutions of a democracy.
In a democracy, the people elect a group of people to represent them and these elected representatives are empowered to make law that binds the people. The law they make is called 'legislation' and is found in statutes or Acts of Parliament. Sometimes, this legislation gives other institutions the power to make law themselves; for example, it might empower local councils to make law for their towns and cities. Sometimes, this legislation gives people like judges the power to interpret the law and decide disputes between people. Sometimes, this law gives institutions like the police the power to arrest people and take them into custody. A lot of legislation gives powers to others to do things that are law-like; in other words, to do things that restrict the rights and freedoms of others. What's happening is that the legislation 'confers' these powers on others.
But, and this is important, the powers that legislation confers on others have limits. For example, the police are allowed to arrest people, but only in certain circumstances, which are spelled out in the legislation. They can't arrest you just because you are enjoying an ice cream in a public place. But they can if you kill someone in a public place. Local councils in New Zealand are allowed to make law controlling dogs. This means that if your dog mauls someone, the council can have it put down. But it can't put your dog down just because it happened to bark the other night and wake up the neighbours. And so on it goes: limits like this apply to everyone with the powers to do law-like things.
As a result, you get a lot of debate in democracies about whether an action of a person or institution is within the limits set down by the legislation. For example, let's say a local council makes a law that says "The council can put down any dog that attacks a person". However, the legislation governing the council says something like "Local councils may impound dogs but may not put them down." This would mean that the law made by the council was outside the powers given to it by the legislation. A person could go to court and have the law struck down. The point to note here is that, when there is dispute over the extent of the powers given to a person or institution, the issue is decided by going back to what the legislation says. No one can do anything that is inconsistent with what the legislation says. What the legislation says controls what others can do or say. The legislation is the boss, and everyone else must act in accordance with it.
The same is true in the Baha'i context. The 'other sources' must act and speak in accordance with what Baha'u'llah has written. No one can do anything that is inconsistent with what Baha'u'llah says. What Baha'u'llah says controls what others can do or say. Baha'u'llah is the boss, and everyone else must act in accordance with his word. Therefore, if there is any question about any matter, the first step is to find out what Baha'u'llah says on the matter. He establishes the principles and, from there, we may get further insight from other sources. But whatever other sources say, it must be in accordance with what Baha'u'llah says.
In light of this, let's look briefly at the statement 'other sources are equally authoritative as Baha'u'llah'. This is like saying 'what judges decide is equally authoritative as legislation'. However, what a judge decides is not equally authoritative as legislation. A judge's decision is made in accordance with legislation. A judge simply applies law in order to make a decision. At all times, the judge and everyone else involved in the case have regard to the applicable legislation and any other relevant law. And, to find out what that law says, they must consult the original source. All decisions are based on the source.
The best that can be made of the statement that a judge's decision is 'equally authoritative' as legislation is that it is binding; in other words, the parties to the case must abide by the decision. In this sense, the judge's decision is 'law' (this is particularly the case if the decision is made by a high court). But the decision is not equally authoritative as legislation because it does not stand on its own. All decisions are made with reference to primary law and principles and cannot be understood except in the light of them. For this same reason, Baha'is should not content themselves with the words of the 'other sources' alone. They should read what those sources say in the light of the primary law and principles that Baha'u'llah has set down.
"O people, look not upon Me through your eyes or the eyes of your leaders, for by God, the Eternal Truth, that shall never profit you in any way, even should ye appeal for help to the first creatures to be created. Rather, look upon My beauty with My eyes, for if ye gaze with the eyes of anyone else, ye will never know Me. Thus hath the matter been revealed in the tablets of God, the Almighty, the Glorious, the Wise." Baha'u'llah, Garden of Justice, paragraph 14

Commentary on Tablet of the Son

 Commentary on Tablet of the Son