Sunday, 19 July 2009

History and the Iqan

I finished reading the Iqan for the umteenth time a few weeks back. When I first read it three decades ago, I couldn't understand a word of it. Now when I read it, mostly I see that Baha'u'llah is describing the Baha'is. It rolls through my mind that when the Baha'is read the Iqan – if they ever do – they think it refers to the Muslims, Christians and Jews – after all, those are the people Baha'u'llah actually names, isn't it? And for ages, I read the Iqan like that too. But now, I recognise that Baha'u'llah is pointing the finger at the Baha'is as much as he is the people of other Books.

The Iqan gives us a cosmic history of religion. It tells us the history of religion from the point of view of God. And, from that vantage point, it explains to us what that history is from two points of view: from the point of view of those in the spiritual world and from the point of view of those in the physical world. To take a simple example, Christ was crucified, but how was that physical event interpreted by God and those in the highest Kingdom? Baha'u'llah tells us that during Christ's interrogation, he tried to open the eyes of onlookers to the spiritual reality before them by saying "Beholdest thou not the Son of Man sitting on the right hand of power and might?" Baha'u'llah explains:

"Finally, an accursed of God arose and, approaching Jesus, adjured Him saying: 'Didst thou not claim to be the Divine Messiah? Didst thou not say, "I am the King of Kings, My word is the Word of God, and I am the breaker of the Sabbath day?"' Thereupon Jesus lifted up His head and said: 'Beholdest thou not the Son of Man sitting on the right hand of power and might?' These were His words, and yet consider how to outward seeming He was devoid of all power except that inner power which was of God and which had encompassed all that is in heaven and on earth.' (Baha'u'llah: The Kitab-i-Iqan, Page: 133)

And so the point Baha'u'llah is making is that although in the physical world Christ was being interrogated and his life was in danger, the spiritual reality was that he wielded unlimited power. He just chose not to use it. There were two narratives going on, which were the opposite of each other. In the physical narrative, Christ was powerless; in the spiritual narrative, Christ was all-powerful. And throughout the Iqan, Baha'u'llah is telling us this double story. We tell a story about past events in this world – we call it history - but there is a complementary cosmic story told in the highest Kingdom and it is quite different.

Like it or lump it, the Baha'is are a part of the cosmic history that Baha'u'llah has introduced to humanity in the Iqan. Baha'u'llah discusses in the Iqan how this cosmic history begins in the beginning that has no beginning and ends in the end that has no end. The Baha'is don't think of the Baha'i revelation as being a part of it. But if that was the case, then cosmic history would have to end with the appearance of the Bab. The Baha'i revelation is a part of cosmic history and the consequences of that are a complex issue indeed.

Perhaps I haven't quite got the Baha'i position right here. Baha'is are willing to see themselves as a part of cosmic history, but only on the right side of it. They are not willing to see themselves as the baddies. The baddies who persecute the manifestations are the Muslims, Christians and Jews – but not the Baha'is. Baha'is are the victims; they are on the side of the manifestations; they are the ones who suffer and are martyred for the manifestations who appear in the world unrecognised. The logical problem with this assumption is that Jews, Christians and Muslims have all suffered and been martyred in the Cause of new manifestations. There were Jewish, Christian and Muslim martyrs in previous Days of Resurrection when God renewed his religion. But those people of the Book ended up persecuting future manifestations. This is one of the central themes of the cosmic story that Baha'u'llah tells, that just because you call yourself Jewish, Christian, or Muslim doesn't mean you have not persecuted God, doesn't mean you are on the side of right. Why do Baha'is imagine themselves to be immune from this cycle?

The answer is infallibility. If the House of Justice is infallible, it will not persecute the next manifestation. The effect of this assumption of infallibility is to rule the Baha'is out of the cosmic story as persecutors and allow only for them to be the persecuted. In the Baha'i world view, only Jews, Christians and Muslims can be on the wrong side of cosmic history. I suggest that this highly selective and self-serving reading of the Iqan is one important reason why the Baha'is do not take a lot of notice of the Iqan. The book makes statements that leave Baha'is uncomfortable; for example:

"Likewise, in the verse concerning the 'Spirit,' He saith: 'And they will ask Thee of the Spirit. Say, "the Spirit proceedeth at My Lord's command."'[Qur'an 17:85] As soon as Muhammad's answer was given, they all clamorously protested, saying: 'Lo! an ignorant man who knoweth not what the Spirit is, calleth Himself the Revealer of divine Knowledge!' And now behold the divines of the age who, because of their being honoured by His name, and finding that their fathers have acknowledged His Revelation, have blindly submitted to His truth. Observe, were this people today to receive such answers in reply to such questionings, they would unhesitatingly reject and denounce them - nay, they would again utter the self-same cavils, even as they have uttered them in this day." (Baha'u'llah: The Kitab-i-Iqan, Page: 183)

What would the Baha'is of today say to a person who said about the spirit that it proceeds at the Lord's command? Well, they might say that the spirit proceeds at the House of Justice's command! And they'd denounce the person for laying claim to any knowledge or experience of the spirit independent of the House of Justice, for all spirit is confined to that institution and its global teaching campaign - in the same way, for example, that bringing ourselves to account each day is asking ourselves what we're doing to support those two things.

But in any case, the point in the quote from the Iqan is that the divines were believers because their ancestors were believers and, therefore, only blindly obeyed their religion, despite being considered experts in the manifestation they claimed to adhere to. Why can't the Baha'is be guilty of this? Why can't this be true of those who are held up as leaders in the Baha'i community? This is an example of why a close reading of the Iqan is an awkward thing for Baha'is, why they don't do it and, when they do, they talk in general terms and point the finger at members of previous religions, but never apply the principles and lessons in the book to themselves.

But much as the Baha'is like to think of themselves as paragons of virtue, this myth cannot go on forever. The cosmic story that Baha'u'llah outlines in the Iqan is higher than any of us on this earth, including the House of Justice, and it will separate those who truly believe from those who blindly submit. One of the reasons I am bringing this subject up is that, to my mind, the Baha'i community is completely lost. The global campaign that the House of Justice is running, and that sporned 40 regional conferences, is an exercise in hysteria, vain imaginings and idle fancies. The Baha'i community has lost its way. And the reason this has happened is because of the infallibility fallacy.

I suggest that a good way to understand what's happened to the community is to see it in the context Baha'u'llah lays out for us in the Iqan. He tells us that manifestations come, that a few will believe but most, following their religious leaders, will not believe and will persecute. We also know that the followers of that same religion will play out the same game 1000 years later when the next manifestion comes. The Baha'is are no different. It took less than 20 years for the Babis to go off the rails, why do the Baha'is imagine themselves to be still on track 100 or so years later? I think it's time to start telling ourselves different stories – not stories about how it'll turn out all right on the night because the House of Justice is infallible, but stories about how we're doing as a community against the measures Baha'u'llah gives us in the Iqan such as:
-- Have we blindly submitted to our religious leaders instead of reading scripture for ourselves and coming to our own understanding of it?
-- Do we take seriously the imperative requirement that we have a pure heart, as outlined in the tablet of the true seeker?

Baha'is are indoctrinated to believe that their history is encapsulated in the Dawn-breakers. And although some aspect of Baha'i history is told there, we are also a part of a much larger history that Baha'u'llah outlines in the Iqan. We need to widen our horizons and see ourselves as part of a cosmic story that stretches over revelations. Each community will ultimately become divided as each new manifestation appears. We cannot afford to imagine that just because we call ourselves 'Baha'is' we are on the side of right, that we would not persecute a person who one day came among us and tried to make new laws that overrode those of Baha'u'llah. What would you do to such a person? One day such a person will come – although not in our lifetimes – but what would you think of him/her? Would you investigate openly for yourself, or take the easy road and just follow those who told you s/he was a heretic?

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

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