Sunday, October 12, 2008

To Recognize God

And as for 'irfan, what can it mean? How does Baha'u'llah use this word?

Undoubtedly, one of the few concepts around which the entirety of the Baha'i faith could be said to revolve is 'irfan, typically tranlated as true understanding, recognition, knowledge (of which all could be addended with "of God") It names the point at which a soul enters into a relation of truth with God's manifestation, and initiates a life of service unto Him. How this comes about, when, and what outward signs it produces are currently some of the most fruitful and engaging theological discussions happening at this time within the Baha'i community; for at its heart is an inquiry as to what exactly makes somebody a Baha'i. Without directly engaging these specific discussions (I'd rather defer to "learning in action" taking place all over the world.) I'd like to capture in writing a brief impression left by the Baha'i writings on the meaning of 'irfan: true understanding, the recognition of the Manifestation of God.

It seems 'irfan is a gratification of spiritual sense, analagous to that of the five bodily senses. The parallelism of soul and body, the very invocation of the latter as metaphor, is exactly that which sets them apart, dividing bodily gratification from spiritual gratification. In the writings the turning of a soul towards its lord is indicated by means of a long series of sensual images: the beauty of the beloved, the light of dawn, the warmth of the fire, the scent of the true Joseph's garment. The soul is caught up in the pleasure of an other. These are not moments in which the soul labors for the sake of something else. They are not means towards another end. They are presented as experiences desirable for their own sake. 'Irfan is simple gratification. Each image Baha'u'llah invokes expresses in its own way a founding motivation, a pleasure irreducible to and underivable for any impetus besides itself.

In so many words, 'irfan is what comes first. This priority, this firstness, is the mark of God's sovereignty on the recognizing soul, its commissioning and setting-apart for a life distinguished by service to the object of its desire. In addition, it is the initiation of a relation of truth with the object. Here, at the risk of entrapping the new Beloved within one's own conceptions, the soul begins to learn the other and learn from the other.

Your Cat,
Mirza Qasim Al-Qatt