Friday, November 30, 2007

Baha'u'llah and Divine Conquest

The world's equilibrium hath been upset through the vibrating influence of this most great, this new World Order. Mankind's ordered life hath been revolutionized through the agency of this unique, this wondrous System -- the like of which mortal eyes have never witnessed.

(Baha'u'llah, The Kitab-i-Aqdas, p. 85)

More and more I keep coming back to this conception of the Baha'i faith as a revolutionary movement. Reference to the many passages in Baha'u'llah's writings enjoining obedience to one's government are insufficient to deter me from this understanding of the faith's activity as one of resistance. The only reason for this is that it is His writings themselves that keep goading me on. Passages enjoining obedience have their place. But they are far from all Baha'u'llah has to say about revolutionary social change. Baha'u'llah clearly did not support insurrection against established authorities. That was implied by his prohibition against holy war in 1863 at his Ridvan declaration. But the imagery employed and the analogies used in His writings from that same period present an understanding of a Baha'i community that carries on a spirit of resistance against those who seek to obstruct the mission of Baha'u'llah. Domination, punishment, and revenge are ideas clearly expressed in the text itself. Far from distancing himself from historical instances of holy war in His writings from the years immediately following his Ridvan declaration Baha'u'llah goes so far as to compare his own ministry and the efforts of His followers with some of the most venerated and explosive moments of holy war in Shia Islamic memory. Holy war may be out. But religious resistance has by no means gone with it. Instead it is stirred to new life through a fresh reformulation that while shutting down some possibilities for social change opens up new ones as well. Below are some passages that have led me in this direction.

That which hath befallen Us hath been witnessed before. Ours is not the first goblet dashed to the ground in the lands of Islam, nor is this the first time that such schemers have intrigued against the beloved of the Lord. The tribulations We have sustained are like unto the trials endured aforetime by Imam Husayn......

By the righteousness of God! Through his deed the fragrances of holiness were wafted over all things, the proof of God was perfected, and His testimony made manifest to all men. And after him God raised up a people who avenged his death, who slew his enemies, and who wept over him at dawn and at eventide. Say: God hath pledged in His Book to lay hold upon every oppressor for his tyranny, and to uproot the stirrers of mischief. Know ye that such holy deeds exert, in themselves, a great influence upon the world of being -- an influence which is, however, inscrutable to all save those whose eyes have been opened by God, whose hearts He hath freed from obscuring veils, and whose souls He hath guided aright.

The day is approaching when God will have raised up a people who will call to remembrance Our days, who will tell the tale of Our trials, who will demand the restitution of Our rights from them that, without a tittle of evidence, have treated Us with manifest injustice. God, assuredly, dominateth the lives of them that wronged Us, and is well aware of their doings. He will, most certainly, lay hold on them for their sins. He, verily, is the fiercest of avengers.

(Baha'u'llah, The Summons of the Lord of Hosts, Suriy-i-Muluk p. 204, 206)

Baha'u'llah understands the sacred history of his own movement as a reflection of events from early Islamic history. First, there is the appearance of a heroic figure whose efforts are struck down by an evil persecutor. Second, there is a movement which rolls back the oppression of the persecutor, gets avenges the suffering of the former, and establishes a new order of divine justice. The Imam Husayn and the overthrow of the Umayyads are the twin moments Baha'u'llah references.

Muhammad's grandson, the Imam Husayn led a failed attempt to overthrow the Muslim Caliph Yazid of the Umayyad dynasty. Engaged in battle at Karbala before gathering his troops he and his 72 companions were grossly outnumbered by the 40,000 troops amassed by Yazid. Following his death, Husayn was immortalized as the archetypical Muslim who sacrificed everything he had in the name of God and His justice. Furthermore his martyrdom became a rallying cry for all who regarded the family of the Prophet as the rightful heirs to leadership of the Islamic world. Today they are knowns as the Shia, the branch of Islam from which the Babi and Baha'i movements emerged.

In the above passage on the Imam Husayn, Baha'u'llah has this to say. And after him God raised up a people who avenged his death, who slew his enemies, and who wept over him at dawn and at eventide. If there is anyone in history who could be said to have fulfilled this role it is Abu Muslim, his warriors, and all other revolutionaries involved in the overthrow of Yazid's dynasty, the Umayyads. Upon spreading the word that a member of the Prophet's family was willing and capable to take up the Caliphate Abu Muslim and others led a broad-based revolt to restore that sacred office to its rightful owners. In large part this was understood as revenge for those members of the family who had been martyred in the past, including the Imam Husayn and his father Ali. Dyeing their clothes black and marching behind banners of the same color the forces of Abu Muslim took their stand against the Ummayads. Beginning from the region of Khurasan to the east of the Caspian sea, Abu Muslim and his troops swept across Iran all the way to Egypt, deposing the caliph, and inaugurating the era of the Abbasid dynasty.

Though Baha'u'llah does not specifically name Abu Muslim in the above passage, the interpretation that it refers to him is born out by more than a lack of more plausible historical alternatives. Abu Muslim and the war against the Ummayads had already been memorialized within the Babi-Baha'i community as its predecessor. When Mulla Husayn one of the Bab's leading disciples waged holy war in defense of their faith, he did so in the Iranian province of Khurasan. And sealing the Abu Muslim analogy he and his troops marched behind black banners, just like the 8th century revolutionary. At the time this was intriguing enough. The Bab had not forbidden holy war, as did Baha'u'llah a generation later. To follow in the footsteps of Abu Muslim made quite a bit of sense. But for Baha'u'llah to endorse this analogy after his prohibition of holy war indicates a strong continuity of thought on the subject of religious struggle even though there was a clear break from physical violence.

In both instances the idea of revenge is crucial. That the memory and teachings of Baha'u'llah are lifted up means that someone else is cast down. One could limit this deposition to those individuals who persecuted Baha'u'llah in His lifetime. But the Abu Muslim analogy does not require that. Yazid was long gone by the time the Umayyads were deposed. But the descendants and the social arrangement he represented lived on. It was this state of heresy and injustice that Abu Muslim deposed. In Baha'u'llah's writings the individual persecutors are times only symbols of a broader injustice that embraces a wider context. Take the quotation with which I began this entry. The world's equilibrium hath been upset through the vibrating influence of this most great, this new World Order. Mankind's ordered life hath been revolutionized through the agency of this unique, this wondrous System -- the like of which mortal eyes have never witnessed. Baha'u'llah has in mind far more than struggle against the ruling classes of the Ottoman or Persian empires when we He speaks of revolt, triumph, and revenge. What He has in mind is a transformation, indeed a revolution, of affairs that embraces all of humanity. That Baha'u'llah still takes seriously the Abu Muslim analogy indicates that this turn from one age to the next bears resemblance to the switch from the Umayyad to the Abbasid dynasties. Overturning the reigning the religio-socio-political arrangement, the servants of God labor to install a new one in line with God's justice.

Below are two passages that help illustrate the means by which the Baha'i community is to accomplish this transformation.

[to the kings of the Earth] By the righteousness of God! It is not Our wish to lay hands on your kingdoms. Our mission is to seize and possess the hearts of men.

(Baha'u'llah, The Kitab-i-Aqdas, p. 49)

Beware lest ye shed the blood of anyone. Unsheathe the sword of your tongue from the scabbard of utterance, for therewith ye can conquer the citadels of men's hearts. We have abolished the law to wage holy war against each other. God's mercy, hath, verily, encompassed all created things, if ye do but understand. Aid ye your Lord, the God of Mercy, with the sword of understanding. Keener indeed is it, and more finely tempered, than the sword of utterance, were ye but to reflect upon the words of your Lord.

(Baha'u'llah, The Summons of the Lord of Hosts, Suriy-i-Haykal p. 22)

Rather than directly confronting the kings of the earth on the battlefield, Baha'u'llah chooses to bypass their thrones in favor of the hearts of humanity. Rather than unsheathing swords of iron He admonishes His followers to unsheathe swords of utterance and understanding. Swords are still unsheathed. Struggle goes on. But it is no longer a physical battle. Instead, Baha'is are sent forth to compete for the allegiance of people's hearts. They are instructed to edify minds and souls, not to destroy bodies in the name of God.

The loss is that this may deprive Baha'is of immediate means by which to overthrow unjust governments. The upshot though is that this allows Baha'is to operate in a far larger number of localities. No government wants to host movements with insurrectionary tendencies. For better or worse they want subjects who will not take direct action against their rule. Some may call this appeasement of oppressors. But on the other hand it allows for the wider propagation of Baha'u'llah's message of global justice. Immediate action against state-actors has its appeal. But if it results in the widespread suppression and mistrust of the vehicle of God's justice then such violent action can be regarded only as a distraction, a dissipation of resources, and a squandering of vital opportunities. Baha'u'llah presents a vision of holy war that eschews these immediate political diversions. He goes straight to the heart of the matter, the diffusion and consolidation of His guidance, setting the stage for the emergence of God's justice.

It is the establishment of this new World Order that is the revenge he seeks against His enemies, those who stand in the way of His justice. Some people and the attitudes they represent have a place in that world. Others do not. For these there are swords of utterance and understanding. He, verily, is the fiercest of avengers.

Saturday, November 17, 2007

and now for a quote from Shoghi Effendi.....

Nor does the Bahá’í Revelation, claiming as it does to be the culmination of a prophetic cycle and the fulfillment of the promise of all ages, attempt, under any circumstances, to invalidate those first and everlasting principles that animate and underlie the religions that have preceded it. The God-given authority, vested in each one of them, it admits and establishes as its firmest and ultimate basis....Far from aiming at the overthrow of the spiritual foundation of the world’s religious systems, its avowed, its unalterable purpose is to widen their basis, to restate their fundamentals, to reconcile their aims, to reinvigorate their life, to demonstrate their oneness, to restore the pristine purity of their teachings, to cöordinate their functions and to assist in the realization of their highest aspirations. These divinely-revealed religions, as a close observer has graphically expressed it, “are doomed not to die, but to be reborn… ‘Does not the child succumb in the youth and the youth in the man; yet neither child nor youth perishes?’”

-Shoghi Effendi

from the essay "the Dispensation of Baha'u'llah" in his compilation "the World Order of Baha'u'llah"

Dropping the (s) in Religion(s) of God

Below is link to an essay by leading scholar of the Baha'i faith today, Moojan Momen. I don't really get his choice of title, Beyond Pluralism. But the essay expresses much of what I've been tossing around in my head for sometime anyway. It considers the incorporation of pre-Baha'i spiritualities into Baha'i communities. If I had to summarize his argument it is that Baha'is' narrow focus today on their own history and their own texts is only a temporary feature of the faith's development and that in time the faith will more and more express the richness and diversity of the world's religious expressions. Thus, the Baha'i principle of the unity of the world's religions is something yet to be expressed concretely in a mode of global community life.

So go ahead, read the essay. It's rather short and only takes a minute or two to read.

If I had to add anything to Momen's argument, it is that the relative smallness of Baha'i communities is a major factor preventing the emergence of the faith as a "metareligion." While religious communties are still small there is a great pressure on individuals to uphold the essentials: in this case the Revelation of Baha'u'llah and contemporary efforts to propogate His message. If Baha'is do not promote the central core of the faith, then this runs the risk of the faith losing its focus, momentum, and possibly even its existence. Thus, there is an almost existential imperative for all Baha'is to represent the faith as a whole and not just as a facet.

But as communities grow and become more firmly established, individuals have a greater luxury of individualizing their religious experience. In this case, a larger Baha'i community can accommodate for those among its ranks who want to pursue things like Buddhist medititation,
Sufi mysticism, indigenous art, or any number of things in a Baha'i context. Since recognition and understanding of Baha'u'llah is firmly established, there is then greater freedom for people to branch out and explore the relationship of the faith to assimilate "non-Baha'i" aspects of their heritage or interests into their Baha'i experience. This does not mean that such branching does not exist. Certainly, every Baha'i community, indeed every person, embodies this process of individuation and exploration. But this has only been made possible on past growth and will only become more possible in the future on the basis of further expansion and consolidation.

I observed this first hand as I made my transition from Catholicism (1 billion strong globally) to the Baha'i faith (6 million strong globally). Whereas in the past I saw myself as a counterbalance to the excesses of others in the Church, I quickly found that there was no room for such specialization in my immediate Baha'i community. I could no longer be a mere gadfly. I had to take the position of Baha'i normalcy and hold to it. In a way, I had to be the Baha'i faith in general. Any sort of specialization would only manifest as a distortion, inasmuch as the branch would predominate over the trunk.

If anything, I hope that Momen's thoughts can contribute to a greater understanding of Baha'i teachings on the unity of religion. Most important of all, a possible Baha'i future can not be imagined as an extension
purely of the existing Baha'i present. The evolution of no community is ever complete. The appearance of the Baha'i faith today as "just another world religion" cannot be assumed as an adequate understanding of its future, and thus by extension, its present. The spiritual unity of the human race is possible in ways as yet unexpressed and unthinkable.

Friday, November 16, 2007

to be oneself

The following two paragraphs are the preface to Niezsche's Genealogy of Morality, a book with which I've had an on and off love affair since I first read it back in the spring. It points to a particular lack of mindfulness, of daydreaming through life without ever waking up, a postponement of reality in favor of its knowledge.


We don’t know ourselves, we knowledgeable people—we are personally ignorant about ourselves. And there’s good reason for that. We’ve never tried to find out who we are. How could it ever happen that one day we’d discover our own selves? With justice it’s been said that “Where your treasure is, there shall your heart be also.” Our treasure lies where the beehives of our knowledge stand. We are always busy with our knowledge, as if we were born winged creatures—collectors of intellectual honey. In our hearts we are basically concerned with only one thing, to “bring something home.” As far as the rest of life is concerned, what people call “experience”—which of us is serious enough for that? Who has enough time? In these matters, I fear, we’ve been “missing the point.” Our hearts have not even been engaged with that—nor, for that matter, have our ears!

We’ve been much more like someone divinely distracted and self-absorbed into whose ear the clock has just pealed the twelve strokes of noon with all its force and who all at once wakes up and asks himself “What exactly did that clock strike?”—so we rub ourselves behind the ears afterwards and ask, totally surprised and completely embarrassed “What have we really just experienced?” And more: “Who are we really?” Then, as I’ve mentioned, we count—after the fact—all the twelve trembling strokes of the clock of our experience, our lives, our being—alas! in the process we keep losing the count . . . So we remain necessarily strangers to ourselves, we do not understand ourselves, we have to keep ourselves confused. For us this law holds for all eternity: “Each man is furthest from himself.” Where we ourselves are concerned, we are not “knowledgeable people.”

This blog received most of my attention over the summer when it was a scratchpad for a commentary on the Baha'i Long Obligatory Prayer. Its founding assumption was that spirituality is always in some way a movement of thought. The objective of the project was simple: to think the Long Obligatory Prayer. The hope was that an exploration of the ideas conveyed and referenced in the prayer could breathe new life into the spiritual practice of its performers. Now, after all that work I have a 70 odd page manuscript sitting on my bookshelf, waiting for a revision at some point in the future. But something is terribly missing.....besides readers. I still stand by my founding assumption, that spirituality is a movement of thought. But the execution seems to have profoundly missed a fundamental point. And I think Niezsche's preface hits it on the head.

What is at stake is the very experience of prayer, of mindfulness towards one's condition, and most importantly
of being the one who offers the prayer. I am prompted to pursue this not because of a basic failure in my argument but rather because of a basic failure in my practice. If I, the one who "wrote the book" on the Long Obligatory Prayer is unedified by the whole process, then how edifying could the book be in the first place? Now, as much as ever I feel disconnected and divided against myself as I perform the prayer. It is not I who offers it, but someone else who moves my body and my lips. I observe the whole thing. But rarely do I believe it, or even know it. It is not my anguish to which I testify when I say my blood boileth in my veins. In fact there is no anguish, only a passive looking-on. If there is any anguish it is that of a text, a text whose "I" has no referent but its own grammatical structure. "Is there anybody alive in there? Nobody but us in here!" As if in an out-of-body experience the soul strives for anything but to be present to and as itself as a sign of the Revelation of God. If the performer becomes present to oneself then he or she comes face to face with the burden of responsibility that comes with one's freedom. The reality of free choice and the demand for decisions come surging forward where otherwise there was only the mechanical repetition of ritualized gestures. But that is too terrifying a prospect. So the performer drowns his or herself in the vast ocean of sidenotes, details, and anectdotes. Anything is acceptable, just so long as it helps one hide from the responsibility that comes with human freedom.

For this reason, we must stare this fundamental responsibility in the face without flinching or looking away. My hope is little more than simply to look outward from myself, rather than at myself, from the outside, as if I am another person. For it is Baha'u'llah who says, every one of you knoweth his own self better than he knoweth others. And this is a far subtler exercise than the mere exploration of ideas. A person is not an idea. To engage with oneself as an idea is to put oneself at a distance and be consumed in the "beehives of our knowledge." To be present as oneself requires a more intuitive, possibly even more common-sensical approach to this whole project. It requires an ability to regard the movement of thought constitutive of spirituality independently of its crystallization into a constellation of ideas. It requires thinking the very experience of life, free of the ideas we use to understand it, and in so doing to flee it. But that is only the intellectual project. The spiritual project is little more than just "being there." In this way, there is no time for running away. There is only time for standing one's ground and coming to grips with one's own freedom before a mighty and empowering God.

Tuesday, November 6, 2007

Mr. Cat has an epiphany

This morning I came to a realization. It brought together a wide number of observations on all sorts of things ranging from environmental degradation, American foreign policy, the punctuality of college professors, and my job search here in Las Cruces, New Mexico.

One significant attribute of social power is the right to be irresponsible with impunity, while simultaneously demanding full responsibility as a matter of principle from those lacking in power. In this way, rules of responsible behavior, i.e. doing things in a timely manner, working towards a reasonable balance of one's own needs with the needs of others, "cleaning up one's own mess" etc. are set up as universal obligations by which all need to abide in order to make it in the world. But these supposedly universal obligations are only enforced or recognized as such at the convenience of the powerful.

I'd go into more detail, but I think anybody who would ever read this can probably think of plenty of examples when double standards are used by the powerful to entrench their own positions.

Rant over, and quite briefly at that.

Thursday, November 1, 2007

the Significance of this Age: part 2

This was originally an addendum on the end of the previous entry. But I decided to give it a space of its own. It builds on the ideas presented in the first entry's long quotation from Abdu'l Baha.

Central to Abdu'l Baha's claim is that the world has shrunk in size. Whereas in past times a day's journey might have brought a traveler as far as the next town, now it might bringe the same traveler as far as another continent. But the immediate conclusion of this development is not necessarily that it will produces peace and prosperity for all people. After all he goes no further than stating the unity of all mankind can in this day be achieved. He does not say that it is being achieved. This is because old ways of doing things, developed while the peoples of the earth were still in relative isolation from each other, do not tend towards harmony and good will. They can also excite violence any disagreements or conflicts of interest that will always naturally arise. But the more that diverse peoples recognize their unavoidable interdependence the more that they recognize the need to get along.

So although the human race has been plunged into more famine, epidemic, warfare, and ecological destruction than at any point in its history, this does not mean that modernization and globalization are a straightforward fall from grace. It can also mean that humanity is merely in a process of transition, one fraught with opportunity as well as with pain. In 1936 Shoghi Effendi writes, We stand on the threshold of an age whose convulsions proclaim alike the death-pangs of the old order and the birth pangs of the new. Global unity here is not a distant dream to be realized but rather a concrete opportunity to be seized right now. And make no mistake about it, it is possible to fail to seize this opportunity.

The prolongation of this period of transition and adolescence is unnecessary. Globalization has made the unity of the human race a concrete reality. Whereas once we were strangers, now we are family. The choice before us is what to make of this new family arrangement. Will we manifest this new unity in its fullness through its recognition as the basis of a world order? Or will we continue to ignore it as the backdrop of increasingly internal conflicts, prolonging their corrosive effects. Forces beyond any individual's control have propelled us into a new era. But it is through the power of human choice that its actual content will be firmly determined.

In this way we return to the quote that introduces the previous entry.