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.

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

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