Saturday, March 29, 2008

4) Preliminary Thoughts on Human Nobility

Everyday all around the world students in Baha’i children’s classes learn about unity by standing side by side with another person, tying their inside ankles together and walking around as if they shared three legs between the two of them. At first they walk together only awkwardly. The two feet that make up the middle foot brush past each other in opposite directions. One kid tries to go too fast and falls down. The other is jerked forward by the momentum of the fall. After some giggling they figure out that they need to coordinate their movements if they are going to walk together. Once on the same page they advance in one forward motion. The rag that binds their ankles together no longer jerks and pulls. It rests comfortably on the children’s ankles. For they have become as one body, harmoniously directed by two distinct minds. One way that Baha’u’llah explains spiritual knowledge follows the same pattern.

With regard to the saying, He hath known God who hath known himself, Baha’u’llah has written,

I swear by God, O esteemed and honoured friend! Shouldst thou ponder these words in thine heart, thou wilt of a certainty find the doors of divine wisdom and infinite knowledge flung open before thy face. (KI 108 pp.93-94)

Hmmmm……sounds like a dare.

Perhaps the saying could be rephrased: If one has self-knowledge then he has attained as well to the knowledge of God. Knowledge of oneself is a condition that once met results in knowledge of God. Couple that then with the Qur’anic verse Baha’u’llah quotes immediately before the above saying. And be ye not like those who forget God, and whom He hath therefore caused to forget their own selves. (59.19) In this verse forgetfulness of God results in forgetfulness of self. Or to rephrase it in the positive: remembrance of God makes possible the remembrance (knowledge) of one’s own self. In both of these, a person’s knowledge of oneself and of God are bound together. Though Baha’u’llah is always quick to point out the transcendence of God above His creatures, he is not deterred from conveying that in some way the knowledge of both are united. As one rises, so does the other. As one falls, the other quickly follows. God and humanity retain their distinctive conditions. But knowledge of each depends on the other. Knowledge of self and of God are not mutually exclusive realities. They are not opposing ends of a spectrum. Instead, spiritual knowledge is a heterogeneous condition embracing both Creator and creation, uniting the two, but retaining the distinctiveness inherent to each. This too is a lesson in unity.


Every prophecy of the end-times shares in common the arrival of a sovereign lord who establishes God’s order by shattering to some extent the world’s order. For it is God’s re-appropriation of what is properly His. So no explanation of end-times prophecy as comprehensive as Baha'u'llah's could be complete without giving a proper account of God’s sovereignty, how it is established at the time of the end, and by implication, how it in some way had been lost. There is good sense then that Baha’u’llah begins the second part of the Kitab-i-Iqan with an explanation of the sovereignty that God exercises in each of his Manifestations, among whom is the Qa’im. He is quick to point out to the reader that each of these figures becomes manifest by means of a human form. That the human condition is essential to understanding God’s sovereignty is born out by the effort Baha’u’llah makes to convey it's nobility while still in the process of explaining His doctrine of the Manifestation of God. These two ideas are tied together very closely....perhaps at the ankles.

to be continued,
Your Cat

Friday, March 28, 2008

3) on Welding, that from the Word springs Unity

In the transition from one religious arrangement to another each person walks the path of consternation individually. This is why the opening passage of the book No man shall attain... is written in the singular rather than the plural. Because the Word of God is empowered to tear apart the social fabric, the basic unit of divine judgment is progressively individuated. But the Kitab-i-Iqan is by no means an unconditional affirmation of individualism or a sacralization of divisions. The same Word of God that tears sons from their fathers, students from their teachers also binds believers into a new unity, a new community. After explaining the divisive power of the Word of God Baha'u'llah directs the reader towards its goal. Of Muhammad He writes,

On the other hand, consider the welding power of His Word. Observe, how those in whose midst the Satan of self had for years sown the seeds of malice and hate became so fused and blended through their allegiance to this wondrous and transcendent Revelation that it seemed as if they had sprung from the same loins. Such is the binding force of the Word of God, which uniteth the hearts of them that have renounced all else but Him, who have believed in His signs, and quaffed from the Hand of glory the Kawthar of God’s holy grace. (KI 118 pp. 103)

By noting the forging of a new community as a result of Muhammad's revelation, Baha'u'llah foreshadows His later teachings on global civilization and the power of His own Word to bring it about. With the privilege of our 20/20 hindsight the imprint of Baha'u'llah's Akka writings is unmistakable. He continues,

Furthermore, how numerous are those peoples of divers beliefs, of conflicting creeds, and opposing temperaments, who, through the reviving fragrance of the Divine springtime, breathing from the Riḍván of God, have been arrayed with the new robe of divine Unity, and have drunk from the cup of His singleness! (KI 118 pp. 103)

At this point Baha'u'llah has a fully-fledged account of the transition from one religious arrangement to another. The Word of God both tears down and builds up the heavens and the earth, enacting an event that cuts through and rejuvenates the spiritual body at both individual and collective levels.

Your Cat

Thursday, March 27, 2008

2) on Consternation, that there must be Division

One of Baha'u'llah's key aims in the Kitab-i-Iqan is to diminish (to an extent) the uniqueness of the Qa'im's exercise of divine sovereignty. He writes, This sovereignty hath not been solely and exclusively attributed to the Qa'im. Nay, rather the attribute of sovereignty and all other names and attributes of God have been and will ever be vouchsafed unto all the Manifestations of God. (KI 113 pp.98) The effect of this claim is to transform the Qa'im in the minds of His readers into a figure after whom there is a future, who is an initiator as well as a destroyer, and whose mission would bear resemblance to those of figures who have come before. Baha'u'llah takes Muhammad as an example.

Rather than just positioning the Day of Judgment in the future Baha'u'llah argues that the coming of Muhammad, a moment in the past was a Day of Judgment. The defining event of such a Day is the demarcation between the righteous and the wicked, which according to a particular tradition referenced by Baha'u'llah was accomplished through the utterance of one verse. Some accepted and received the spiritual life that comes from faith. The rest rejected the word of God and were thus abandoned to the death of unbelief. (KI 118 pp. 102)

Notable in Baha'u'llah's interpretation is the location of judgment on the aforementioned Day. God does not pronounce a verdict upon passive defendants in His cosmic courtroom. Instead, He sets up a situation by means of His Word in which those involved must come to a judgment regarding whether or not God has spoken and whether or not to obey. The people decide for themselves. This is absolutely crucial. It is the entrance of human agency into the end-times drama of divine justice. People do not just go where they are led. They are forced to think, decide, act, and deal with the consequences of this sequence in this our earthly life. In other words, a Day of Judgment is not the end of human agency. But rather it is its coming of age, a coming into one's own. Creativity is an essential virtue in the end-times, for it gestures at once to the promise of a new creation and as well to the human capacity for innovation and productivity. Interaction between divine and human agency is thus an essential characteristic of divine justice.


Another example from the life of Muhammad to which Baha'u'llah refers is the changing of the Qiblih, the point on the Earth towards which certain prayer is directed. Once again, people are forced to think, decide, and act, producing a demarcation between the faithful and the unfaithful. Under increasing pressure from the Jews of Medina for Islam to more exactly reproduce Jewish tradition, Muhammad abruptly changed the Qiblih from Jerusalem, the seat of Judaism, to Mecca, the seat of Arab religion, during communal prayers. Suffice to say, this was deeply unsettling to these Jewish followers of Muhammad. Many left Islam on the spot. After all, at Medina this is nearly a 180 degree turn away from Jerusalem. Muhammad was literally turning his back on the symbol of all Jewish memory, pride, and hope. Even worse, He was turning in the direction of the Ka'bih shrine which at that point had not yet been cleansed of its idols. In Baha'u'llah's interpretation the consternation caused by this event is not an undesirable side effect of a necessary action. It is the decisive play within a general strategy of demarcation that is deployed within every Revelation. He writes, Yea, such things as throw consternation into the hearts of all men come to pass only that each may be tested by the touchstone of God, that true may be known from the false. (KI 55 pp. 48) In the image of Muhammad and His Jewish followers turning towards each other and against each other, towards separate Qiblihs is found a tearing, a friction, a painful tension that cuts straight through the spiritual body at both the individual and communal levels. It is the inner and outer cleaving that defines the spiritual terrain of the Kitab-i-Iqan's end-times perspective.

Earlier, I wrote of an explosive reversal of received wisdom within the Kitab-i-Iqan: that the destruction and re-creation spoken of in end-times prophecy corresponds to the arrangement of the human person and not of the physical universe. Consternation can be seen as the turning point of this event. For, it makes possible a radical transformation of the individual, the primary site of which is the inherited tradition of law (perhaps law of tradition) inasmuch as it defines his or her existence.

Baha'u'llah interprets the Quranic verse when the heavens shall be cloven asunder (82.1) as a reference to the setting aside of a previous Revelation in favor of a new one along the terrain of religious law and tradition. He writes,

That a divine Revelation which for years hath been securely established; beneath whose shadow all who have embraced it have been reared and nurtured; by the light of whose law generations of men have been disciplined; the excellency of whose word men have heard recounted by their fathers; in such wise that human eye hath beheld naught but the pervading influence of its grace, and mortal eye hath heard naught but the pervading influence of its grace, and mortal ear hath heard naught but the resounding majesty of its command- what act is mightier than that such a Revelation should by the power of God be "cloven asunder" and be abolished at the appearance of one soul?
(KI 46 pp. 41-42)

Having become the common sense, any alteration of the established Revelation appears to its deepened practitioners as a violation of religion itself, a cleaving in the very fabric of sense. The new Revelation then appears to be quite "senseless." After all, what's wrong with the old one? Has it not been given to us by God? Historically speaking this cleaving of the inherited common sense is the Bab. There are few better ways to describe His incorporation of just about every major heresy from that part of the Islamic world: Hurufi numerology, Ismaili continuing revelation, native Iranian fire imagery, not to mention His iconoclastic and provocative approach to His claim to be the promised Qa'im of Shia Islam. His method of awakening the people of the world could be likened to the sharp sting that is best induced by a well-timed bucket of icy water. A hardening tradition of Islam had seized Iran and it was the place of the Bab to rattle the world into a new era. The site of this struggle was the communal conception of spiritual reality that structured people's conceptions of their very selves and strategic consternation was an invaluable instrument.

Upsetting old patterns of life, the cleaving of the heavens sets the stage for new patterns, new life, within each person. Baha'u'llah makes this move in His interpretation of the Quranic expression changing of the earth. Know thou that upon the hearts the bountiful showers of mercy, raining from the "heaven" of divine Revelation, have fallen, the earth of those hearts hath verily changed into the earth of divine knowledge and wisdom. (KI 48 pp. 42-43) And later, Reflect thou, how, in one hand, He hath, by His mighty grasp, turned the earth of knowledge and understanding, previously unfolded into a mere handful, and, on the other, spread out a new and highly exalted earth in the hearts of men. (KI 51 pp. 45) The human person, transformed by the Word of God, is then the new creation promised in end-times prophecy. Divine justice arrives as a person, one who far from being terminated, has come finally into a new maturity, a coming into oneself as human.

Your Cat

1) on the End, that there is a Future

No man shall attain the shores of the ocean of true understanding except he be detached from all that is in heaven and on earth.

Thus begins Baha'u'llah's Kitab-i-Iqan, the central aim of of which is to explain and defend claims made by the Bab that He fulfills Shia Islamic end-times prophesies of the Qa'im. Central among the prophecies is that the Qa'im will fill the earth with justice even as the earth is currently filled with injustice. In fact, it is this expectation of divine justice that undergirds every prophecy of "end-times," Shia Islamic or not. Baha'u'llah may not directly address in the Kitab-i-Iqan what we moderns would call "social justice." But in an Islamic context, the end-times is the topic par excellence within which to address such concerns. The Kitab-i-Iqan should then be interpreted as a foundational text on social justice, rather than a catalogue of specifics.

Traditionally, the end-times are thought of as a transformation, even a destruction of the physical world. It is in keeping then with this end-times context that Baha'u'llah begins with a statement on a person's relationship with heaven and earth. Furthermore the end-times are traditionally regarded as free will's expiration date, when all the choices one has made in life are added up and a place is assigned for their possessor among either the righteous or the wicked. What will be seen though is that the attainment of these shores speaks more to a beginning than it does to an end, and that it is in this that Baha'u'llah charts out a distinctively Baha'i world-view.


Juan Cole interprets Baha'u'llah's message as the reversal of various traditional arrangements at the time within Islam and contemporary cultures. He identifies five. But others are clearly implied by other arguments in Modernity and the Millennium.

Where Religion had mandated war, it now mandated peace;
where it had ordained a lesser status for non-believers, it now required equality;
where it had persecuted the non-conformist, it now guarenteed freedom of belief;
where it had sought to rule, it now left government to civil authorities;
where it had viewed non-believers as the Other, it now promoted political union among the earth's diverse peoples.
(Modernity and the Millennium 138)

Furthermore, Baha'u'llah argued for the equality of men and women, mandated the equitable distribution of wealth, and prophesied the demise of various elites, along with the triumph of popular sovereignty. Cole's analysis is sound but he restrains his analysis of the theme of reversal to writings that come after Baha'u'llah's Ridvan declaration. While recognizing that the Kitab-i-Iqan is an important move towards separation of religion and state, he fails to recognize in the book the explosive reversal of received tradition from which all the above reversals must be derived: that the destruction and re-creation spoken of in end-times prophecy corresponds to the arrangement of the human person and not of the physical universe. The first implication of this foundational truth is that the Day of Judgment tests revitalizes and unleashes human freedom and power rather than terminating it in an all-consuming annihilation. The reversals that take place in Baha'u'llah's later writings are only coherent with His end-time claims within the context of this assertion that our life in this world has a future worth seizing.

Your Cat

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Dispersed Thoughts towards Something Bigger

As internet access allows I will be using this space more and more for discussing Baha'u'llah's understanding of human nature especially as it relates to divine nature. I'll be putting the most focus on the Kitab-i-Iqan, but it's centrality to the Baha'i message means that many other Baha'i writings will be brought into view. Right now it is my contention that the whole faith revolves around the principle elaborated in verse 22 of the Arabic Hidden Words: O Son of Spirit! Noble have I created thee, yet thou hast abased thyself. Rise then unto that for which thou was created. Building off of this idea, the Kitab-i-Iqan is then one long ode to this fundamental nobility. Furthermore it is His last major work before His declaration as the world-messiah promised by the Bab. So for that reason its revelation stands at the threshold of Baha'u'llah's transition from the foremost Babi, to the expounder of His own faith, which itself is a sort of extended elaboration on the principle enshrined in the words, Rise then...

But before I do any of that I want to blather on for awhile about a debate within Baha'i scholarship.

Unmistakably, there is an evolution in the tone and content of Baha'u'llah's writings as His ministry continues. Earlier writings are first and foremost mystical treatises. Writings after his declaration tend to emphasize his station as a world-messiah in whom all history past and future is consummated. Later writings then focus on providing guidance for a global religious community and New World Order.

Traditionally, it has been assumed that these different periods are different aspects of one universal message. But In recent years, the unity and coherence of this diversity has been called into question. This has most been the case among the Talisman scholars, particularly Juan Cole. Whether it be the abrogation of Islamic-Babi principles and worldviews, changes in political strategy, or sudden interest in new foreign influences, changes in tone and content were interpreted more as repudiation rather than development of past beliefs. Among others, Nader Saiedi has contended with this view by pointing out passages that either hearken back to, or foreshadow themes that appear in far greater prominence at other periods of Baha'u'llah's writings, e.g. world unity in the Baghdad writings, or Sufism in the Akka writings. His view is that Baha'u'llah's writings build upon each other and that all other stages of His ministry are present at any one moment if only as hidden supports of surface content or foreshadowing of future development.

As much as I enjoy reading tension and ambiguity into places where others want coherence and certainty, I am most persuaded by Saiedi's approach to Baha'u'llah's writings. While his engagement with the non-Baha'i context of the Writings is far weaker than any of the Talisman scholars, he makes up for it with his in-depth analysis of the internal Shaykhi, Babi, and Baha'i contexts of Baha'u'llah's writings. After all, when it comes down to it, Baha'u'llah is a Baha'i, and patchwork references to gnosticism, reformism, or "Jeffersonian democracy" are of rather limited use at charting the depths of such a complex body of writings.

It is within this debate about the evolution of Baha'u'llah's writings that I would like to frame my discussion of the Kitab-i-Iqan. Saiedi sees the historical and evolutionary nature of religion as the book's central message and the bridge that unites the spiritual writings of the Baghdad period with the world order writings of the Akka period. In this we are more or less agreed. But one thing that I think is lacking in his analysis is proper attention to the one who is born along and advances this historical process: the human being. As I've said it is my contention that the book from beginning to end is one long ode to the nobility of the human person. O Son of Spirit! Noble have I created thee, yet thou hast abased thyself. Rise then unto that for which thou wast created. What I'm going to show is that Baha'u'llah's understanding of human nature is pivotal to everything else in His writings. Namely, that it is we human actors who must will divine justice into being. God has laid down the guidance and will provide assistance both seen and unseen. But other than that, He has thought highly enough of our freedom that He has left it up to us to make it happen. In this destiny there is something divine. But it is this divinity that makes us our most human.

Your Cat