Wednesday, October 31, 2007

the Significance of this Age

O CONTENDING peoples and kindreds of the earth! Set your faces towards unity, and let the radiance of its light shine upon you. Gather ye together, and for the sake of God resolve to root out whatever is the source of contention amongst you. Then will the effulgence of the world's great Luminary envelop the whole earth, and its inhabitants become the citizens of one city, and the occupants of one and the same throne.

(Baha'u'llah, Gleanings from the Writings of Baha'u'llah, p. 217)

At the heart of the Baha'i teachings is that the time has arrived for the appearance of what Baha'u'llah called the Day of God and that his teachings are to serve as the animating spirit of this Kingdom of God on Earth. Whereas in the past humanity had lived apart from each other, in the coming age the organic unity of the human race would be the basis for a global civilization of divine justice. Pivotal to this idea is a single illuminating passage from the writings of Abdu'l Baha. Nowhere else do the Baha'i writings state so clearly the relationship between the Revelation of Baha'u'llah and the time period in which he conducted His ministry. Rather than an arbitrary imposition from on high, this passage imagines God's coming justice as something arisely organically out of the present structure of human civilization. In this entry I want to build up towards this passage which I quote in a rather extended form.

One of the first things to know about the Baha'i idea of the Day of God is that it is not brought about through cataclysmic supernatural forces. The prophecies of the Messiah, the Armageddon, or of the Qa'im may all contain images of warfare led by a divine figure. But their significance is limited to the perennial struggle between good and evil and the justice that God accomplishes by means of human beings. Physical warfare is only a metaphor, not the prophesied event. Thus, there would be no messiah coming out of the stratosphere, or a 9th century Arab returning to wage a global war against unbelievers. The Bab and Baha'u'llah came and went without the cataclysmic spectacle so widely expected. But their appearance did mark the beginning of a new era. And it is up to humanity to labor for the civilization initiated by the Baha'i Revelation. This enormous effort is the event prophesied through the image of war.

The Baha'i writings call their reader to imagine the Kingdom of God as beginning with a day like any other day that is in fact a day unlike any other. But it is no easy task pin down what makes such a day so unique. After all, life seems to go on just as it always has. The rich dominate the poor. Wars get started over greed, prejudice, and religion. And somehow the majority manage to eke out a decent lives for themselves. Such is certainly the case. But the big picture can easily be lost if one only focuses on the details. After all, a fish never knows when its wet. So it's certainly possible that the limitation of a person's experience to one period can blind him or her to enormous changes that have happened in the past. The world is always changing. But some changes are more radical than others. With this in mind, some people may notice this in their own day. Abdu'l Baha is one such person.

I contend that the below passage from his writings is absolutely essential for understanding Baha'i teachings on the Day of God. It shows the ways in which modernization and globalization have radically changed the way human beings relate to each other It shows how Baha'u'llah's teachings on global unity are not just an arbitrary imposition from on high. But rather something that is organically emerging as we speak. The passage's argument is simple. But its effects are profound.


O honoured lady! For a single purpose were the Prophets, each and all, sent down to earth; for this was Christ made manifest, for this did Bahá'u'lláh raise up the call of the Lord: that the world of man should become the world of God, this nether realm the Kingdom, this darkness light, this satanic wickedness all the virtues of heaven -- and unity, fellowship and love be won for the whole human race, that the organic unity should reappear and the bases of discord be destroyed and life everlasting and grace everlasting become the harvest of mankind.

O honoured lady! Look about thee at the world: here unity, mutual attraction, gathering together, engender life, but disunity and inharmony spell death. When thou dost consider all phenomena, thou wilt see that every created thing hath come into being through the mingling of many elements, and once this collectivity of elements is dissolved, and this harmony of components is dissevered, the life form is wiped out.

O honoured lady! In cycles gone by, though harmony was established, yet, owing to the absence of means, the unity of all mankind could not have been achieved. Continents remained widely divided, nay even among the peoples of one and the same continent association and interchange of thought were wellnigh impossible. Consequently intercourse, understanding and unity amongst all the peoples and kindreds of the earth were unattainable. In this day, however, means of communication have multiplied, and the five continents of the earth have virtually merged into one. And for everyone it is now easy to travel to any land, to associate and exchange views with its peoples, and to become familiar, through publications, with the conditions, the religious beliefs and the thoughts of all men. In like manner all the members of the human family, whether peoples or governments, cities or villages, have become increasingly interdependent. For none is self-sufficiency any longer possible, inasmuch as political ties unite all peoples and nations, and the bonds of trade and industry, of agriculture and education, are being strengthened every day. Hence the unity of all mankind can in this day be achieved. Verily this is none other but one of the wonders of this wondrous age, this glorious century. Of this past ages have been deprived, for this century -- the century of light -- hath been endowed with unique and unprecedented glory, power and illumination. Hence the miraculous unfolding of a fresh marvel every day. Eventually it will be seen how bright its candles will burn in the assemblage of man.

Behold how its light is now dawning upon the world's darkened horizon. The first candle is unity in the political realm, the early glimmerings of which can now be discerned. The second candle is unity of thought in world undertakings, the consummation of which will erelong be witnessed. The third candle is unity in freedom which will surely come to pass. The fourth candle is unity in religion which is the corner-stone of the foundation itself, and which, by the power of God, will be revealed in all its splendour. The fifth candle is the unity of nations -- a unity which in this century will be securely established, causing all the peoples of the world to regard themselves as citizens of one common fatherland. The sixth candle is unity of races, making of all that dwell on earth peoples and kindreds of one race. The seventh candle is unity of language, i.e., the choice of a universal tongue in which all peoples will be instructed and converse. Each and every one of these will inevitably come to pass, inasmuch as the power of the Kingdom of God will aid and assist in their realization.

(Abdu'l-Baha, Selections from the Writings of Abdu'l-Baha, p. 31)

Sunday, October 14, 2007

the Manifestation of Divine Unity

I don't really have a clear agenda for this entry. I have no particular point that I want to argue. So, what this means is that I'm running low on blood sugar and I don't have the presence of mind to pull everything together into a coherent whole. Regardless, I thought that I'd use this space to vent my appreciation for a particular theme within the Baha'i writings: that the unity of God is not just His transcendence above His creation, but that it is also regarded in Baha'u'llah's writings as an attribute of His that can be manifested by his creatures alongside other divine attributes such as love, wisdom, or creativity. In the first passage, unity is synonymous with fellowship and peace between people. In the second passage, the unity that is manifested is a unity of purpose, a single minded focus on living by divine guidance. Beyond these passages I want to take up a reflection on how love and unity between people is most effectively produced.

The first quotation that students of Baha'i children's classes ever learn is this quotation: So powerful is the light of unity that it can illuminate the whole earth. It comes from Baha'u'llah's Epistle to the Son of the Wolf. In its original context it is as follows.

The utterance of God is a lamp, whose light is these words: Ye are the fruits of one tree, and the leaves of one branch. Deal ye one with another with the utmost love and harmony, with friendliness and fellowship. He Who is the Daystar of Truth beareth Me witness! So powerful is the light of unity that it can illuminate the whole earth. The One true God, He Who knoweth all things, Himself testifieth to the truth of these words.
(Baha'u'llah, Epistle to the Son of the Wolf, p. 14)

The passage is a good choice on the part of the Ruhi institute as an introduction. For one, it focuses on the importance of unity within the Baha'i faith, and its need in this day. Secondly, it introduces the theme of illumination and manifestation from above that is a key component of Baha'u'llah's worldview. Though it is not immediately clear that this spiritual light is divine in origin, the imagery is a clear reference to the Surih of the Troops from the Qur'an.

And the trumpet shall be blown, and those who are in the heavens and in the earth shall swoon, save whom God pleases. Then it shall be blown again, and, lo! they shall stand up and look on. And the earth shall beam with the light of its Lord, and the Book shall be set forth, and the prophets and martyrs shall be brought; and it shall be decreed between them in truth, and they shall not be wronged!
(The Qur'an (E.H. Palmer tr), Sura 39 - The Troops)

Another passage in which God's creatures are said to manifest divine unity is in Baha'u'llah's address to the Ottoman Sultan Abdu'l Aziz, contained in the Suriy-i-Muluk.

Return, then, and cleave wholly unto God, and cleanse thine heart from the world and all its vanities, and suffer not the love of any stranger to enter and dwell therein. Not until thou dost purify thine heart from every trace of such love can the brightness of the light of God shed its radiance upon it, for to none hath God given more than one heart. This, verily, hath been decreed and written down in His ancient Book. And as the human heart, as fashioned by God, is one and undivided, it behoveth thee to take heed that its affections be, also, one and undivided. Cleave thou, therefore, with the whole affection of thine heart, unto His love, and withdraw it from the love of anyone besides Him, that He may aid thee to immerse thyself in the ocean of His unity, and enable thee to become a true upholder of His oneness.
(Baha'u'llah, The Summons of the Lord of Hosts, p. 214)

Though in the previous passage unity refers to fellowship between human beings, in this instance unity refers to a person's whole-hearted commitment to divine guidance. One thought that might pop into one's mind is that these two passages are slightly contradictory. In particular it doesn't immediately make sense how the unity of the human race is promoted by withdrawing one's heart from the love of anyone besides Him as is prescribed in the second passage. They come together though if one considers the type of love that we ought to display. Rather than love people for themselves, it makes more sense to love God with one's full heart. When that is accomplished that love will overflow into our relationships with all people. For we will see the light of the Creator that is present within each of his creatures. Abdu'l Baha writes,

Love the creatures for the sake of God and not for themselves. You will never become angry or impatient if you love them for the sake of God. Humanity is not perfect. There are imperfections in every human being, and you will always become unhappy if you look toward the people themselves. But if you look toward God, you will love them and be kind to them, for the world of God is the world of perfection and complete mercy.
(Abdu'l-Baha, The Promulgation of Universal Peace, p. 92)

In conclusion, unity is not so much a worldly condition that God has prescribed for his creatures. It can also be seen as a divine attribute which overflows into creation when a person shows forth a deep love for the one Creator. In this way, the earth shall beam with the light of its Lord.

Thursday, October 11, 2007


The paragraph below is from an account of Abdu'l Baha's visit to Great Britain in 1912. Suffice to say, It is highly amusing.

Later, on Christmas day, He visited Lord Lamington (see p. 8). In the evening He went to a Salvation Army hostel, where some five hundred of society's wrecks were gathered. He spoke to them, and donated twenty guineas to the hostel to provide them with a good meal and another night, as His guests. He also inspected the sleeping accommodation of the hostel, and a children's home as well. When He reached Cadogan Gardens that night, it was apparent that the sight of the condition of the unfortunate had distressed Him. A good many of His talks, in His drawing-room during the Christmas week, were concerned with the Birth and the Advent of Christ and the significance of baptism. One day He walked for an hour or so in Hyde Park and Kensington Gardens. Afterwards He went to a Christmas party for the impoverished. Wherever He came across children He showed them such kindness and consideration that some of them thought He was Father Christmas, and sang a song in His praise.

(H.M. Balyuzi, Abdu'l-Baha - The Centre of the Covenant, p. 350)

Monday, October 8, 2007

Some thoughts on Islamic objections to Baha'i obligatory prayer

This following paragraph is taken from an anti-Baha'i poster distributed in the Iranian city of Karaj, quoted on the website It repeats a common criticism among Muslims of the laws of Baha'u'llah.

Obligatory prayers should not be offered in congregation, except the Prayer for the Dead. Baha’is have three obligatory prayers. First one is the long obligatory prayer which is to be offered once in every 24 hours and has completely invented genuflections and verses. The second obligatory prayer is the medium one, offered in the morning, noon and night. The third is the short obligatory prayer and offered at the time of sunset. Of course reciting one of these three prayers will suffice. And if one were to chose the short obligatory prayer it is almost like not praying at all. The Qiblih [the Point of Adoration] is the burial spot of Mirza Husayn-Ali Baha in Akka, Israel.

This is part of a broader critique of Baha'is that since Muslims pray five times a day that this is better than one or three times a day: the more the holier. This simplistic view, I think, is in need of a thorough dismantling. It is recounted in Islamic tradition that God at first enjoined upon Muhammad that the Muslims should pray fifty times a day, but that with negotiation Muhammad talked God down to requiring it only five times a day. One part of this episode is recounted in the following hadith.

Allah gave this joyful news along with the reduction to the Prophet Allah that: “Oh my Prophet! The word is never changed in my presence. You will take the benefit of fifty times of Salah in return of performing five times a day of Salah” (İbn-i Mâce, İkâmetü's salât, 194)

That the five times could take on the benefit of the fifty is certainly an example of the Islamic-Baha'i principle "Verily, God doeth whatsoever He willeth and ordaineth whatsoever He pleaseth." That something is good is not so because of inherent qualities, but because of those graces that have been bestowed upon it by the will of God, a will that is not constrained by any other standard of righteousness.

If Muhammad decrees that it be five times a day, then yes, it is the law of God regarding obligatory prayer. If Baha'u'llah says one or three times, then yes, that is the law of God regarding obligatory prayer. Indeed if both declared none, then that too would be the law of God. Verily, God doeth whatsoever He willeth and ordaineth whatsoever He pleaseth. In this light whatever is the law is irrelevant. What matters is whether or not something is revealed by the will of God. And this cannot be determined by investigating how often the believers are instructed to pray.

Similarly, the reasons behind the divine laws can exceed the understanding of human beings.

It is nonetheless indisputably clear and evident that the minds of men have never been, nor shall they ever be, of equal capacity. The Perfect Intellect alone can provide true guidance and direction.
-Baha'u'llah in the Tabernacle of Unity p.29

There is in addition a second weakness in the claim "if one were to chose the short obligatory prayer it is almost like not praying at all." This is that for Baha'is, this word is the Word of God. That this doesn't occur to the writer is evidenced by the claim that the long obligatory prayer "has completely invented genuflections and verses." What is meant by this is that the Baha'i obligatory prayers do not come from the words of Muhammad. Instead, they are those of Baha'u'llah, whose words for Baha'is are the Word of God. Such an objection is no different than a Christian denouncing Islamic Salaat as completely fabricated because their words are not Biblical in origin. But I digress. Given that the words of the Short Obligatory prayer are those of God by way of Baha'ullah, then there should be no concern regarding its efficacy, for the word of God is not just any word. It contains a power far exceeding the limitations of merely human speech. The following is one place where Baha'u'llah speaks of the efficacy of the Word of God.

Every word that proceedeth out of the mouth of God is endowed with such potency as can instill new life into every human frame, if ye be of them that comprehend this truth.

(Baha'u'llah, Gleanings from the Writings of Baha'u'llah, p. 140)

It should be noted that in the original Arabic, the Short Obligatory Prayer consists of 28 words.

Baha'u'llah also explains the efficacy of the Word of God in this way,

Intone, O My servant, the verses of God that have been received by thee, as intoned by them who have drawn nigh unto Him, that the sweetness of thy melody may kindle thine own soul, and attract the hearts of all men. Whoso reciteth, in the privacy of his chamber, the verses revealed by God, the scattering angels of the Almighty shall scatter abroad the fragrance of the words uttered by his mouth, and shall cause the heart of every righteous man to throb. Though he may, at first, remain unaware of its effect, yet the virtue of the grace vouchsafed unto him must needs sooner or later exercise its influence upon his soul. Thus have the mysteries of the Revelation of God been decreed by virtue of the Will of Him Who is the Source of power and wisdom.

(Baha'u'llah, Gleanings from the Writings of Baha'u'llah, p. 295)

In conclusion, all of my objections to the above poster revolve around one single point, that it is irrelevant to look at the details of religious laws when looking for their authority. Rather, one must examine first and foremost, whether or not their source is in fact a Revelation from God. This can only come through an unbiased examination of the life of the one making the claim. Perhaps I will touch on this last point more in the future.

Thursday, October 4, 2007

What am I?

Last night I wrote this post twice. The first time I lost my internet connection not long after I started. Thus, there was no autosave function and once I hit publish it went to a new screen, losing the old one without it ever going anywhere. But rather than go into a fit of anger and frustration at technology I was instead filled with a cold-hearted determination to recover the entire damn thing from memory. This is what I churned out in the half an hour that followed. Sadly, the argument does not feel as tight as in the first draft. But that may be because I was only more aware after making it a second time and becoming more attuned to its problems. Ten points to anybody who can figure out what's nagging me that I can't put my finger on.

I was reading some pretty funky stuff on Academic Search Premier (God bless my still- active Earlham library account) when a rather strange thought in my head. This post is the explication of that thought. It concerns the possibility of free choice. But I do not want to pick sides in the free will-determinism debate. That would be rather…well…lame. Instead I will explore the experience of being a freely willing I and the conditions that make that possible. Perhaps it will help me understand what I am.

“I have made choices in the past and will continue to do so in the future.” This is the manifesto of the freely choosing I. At first glance it appears obvious. But open closer examination its basic assumptions turn upon themselves with such strength that it’s a bit of a wonder the experience of freedom remains intact all the while.

On the one hand to be an I is to be a unity that gathers together and fuses a multiplicity of singular moments. Once together they form a temporal sequence, a unified field that cuts across variations in time and place. Insofar as their I-ness is concerned, each moment is equal. They all partake on a level plane of the I that unites them. In this way, a person distinguishes oneself from things. I alone am conscious. I am different. My existence transcends my immediate presence and extends outward into past and future. Across time, I am the same I.

But on the other hand, that sameness and continuity can be the very failure of a person to distinguish oneself from mere, inanimate things. In this model to be human is to be able a choose between a multiplicity, to determines one’s own destiny in one direction rather than another, and by extension to make changes to oneself. After all, we are the choices we make. To fail to determine one’s own destiny is to be stripped of his or her humanity and to become a mere function of who or whatever does. Everyone has experienced this in one limited circumstance or another, as a slab of meat in a hospital bed, a sex-object exploited for another’s pleasure, or an assembly line worker whose occupation is to be little more than a carbon-based robot. In such situations a cold indifferent unity is projected upon one’s existence. The fork in the road is erased, and replaced with the bare necessity of a straight path. To change oneself and one’s surroundings in such contexts is not an option. But to do so is the very means by which one distinguishes oneself from mere things. To establish one’s freedom of choice is to cut against the unity of necessity and choose one path over others. It is to establish oneself as an empty and surging contingency in the space between a multiplicity of options. If there was only one option then there could be no space to insert oneself, only the overbearing presence of destiny.

So, on the one hand, to be a freely choosing I requires a unity for its very constitution. This is what makes consciousness rise above the singular nothings of which it is formed or are immediately present as things set before us in experience. But on the other hand if I am to be in control of my destiny there must be a possibility of change in myself, and thus of violation to that unity. One must be situated between a multiplicity of options so as to surpass the dead unity of thingness. To choose is to tie off the unity of the already-is so as to open up the new reality of the just-now. To be an I requires that one bridge the gap between these two moments, while the reality of that choice depends upon the substantiality of their difference. To be a freely choosing I requires both a unity and a fracturing of that unity, opening the space for choice between the multiple.

“I have made choices in the past and will continue to do so in the future.” Caught between the one and the multiple, the necessary and the contingent the freely choosing I is a far odder terrain than at first imagined.