Thursday, December 4, 2008

The Most Exalted Pen and its Meaning in the Tablet of Ridvan

Selection XIV in Gleanings from the Writings of Baha'u'llah, from the Tablet of Ridvan, will suffice for the purposes of this inquiry. It's opening is as follows.
The Divine Springtime is come, O Most Exalted Pen, for the Festival of the All-Merciful is fast approaching. Bestir thyself, and magnify, before the entire creation, the name of God, and celebrate His praise, in such wise that all created things may be regenerated and made new. (GWB XIV)

Before going any further a few initial observations can be made. This is an announcement
of The Divine Springtime, a period generally accepted as the spiritual regeneration that follows the arrival of a new Manifestation of God. The passage is addressed to a pen, the Most Exalted Pen, Qalam Al-A'la, an expression which is also translated as the Pen of the Most Exalted. The pen is instructed to do three things: 1) to bestir itself, 2) magnify, before the entire creation, the name of God, and 3) celebrate His praise. The effect of these tasks is that all created things may be regenerated and made new. The passage ends at a similar place as it begins. Spring has arrived. In response the Most Exalted Pen is instructed to take action such that the revitalization proper to that season is realized. In the first instance, springtime is an external condition which arrives upon the Pen. But by the second instance it is an event the realization of which it assists. The first condition under which this is possible is that the Pen bestirs itself. The process does not advance automatically. The Pen must be urged on to make itself arise for the accomplishment of the tasks ahead.
Within the text, the addressee is clearly stated, the Most Exalted Pen. At the surface of the text, no reader, presumably, is ever addressed by this text. The only addressee, it seems, is the reed, the dead vegetable matter by which the original manuscript was produced by Baha'u'llah or His amanuensis. One might be led to read this is as a mere spectator, not immediately involved except as a detached observer. In that case it would be a statement of Baha'u'llah on the station of the Word of God. But there is more to the matter than that. The Pen has been commanded to bestir itself. Dead vegetable matter cannot bestir itself. This is a long established conclusion within biology. The only way that it can be moved is if someone or something moves it, a movement over which the Pen has no control. But in the passages that follow, the Pen and it's Lord discuss the reasons for the silence of the former. A few quotes will suffice.
Methinks that thou hast halted and movest not upon My Tablet...
Preferrest thou to tarry when the breeze announcing the Day of God hath already breathed over thee, or art thou of them that are shut out as by a veil from Him?..
No veil whatever have I allowed, O Lord of all names and Creator of the heavens, to shut me from the recognition of the glories of Thy Day—the Day which is the lamp of guidance unto the whole world, and the sign of the Ancient of Days unto all them that dwell therein. My silence is by reason of the veils that have blinded Thy creatures’ eyes to Thee, and my muteness is because of the impediments that have hindered Thy people from recognizing Thy truth...
Arise, and proclaim unto the entire creation the tidings that He Who is the All-Merciful hath directed His steps towards the Ridván and entered it. ...
In short, the Pen has received instructions to magnify the name of God, and celebrate His praise before all people but the desired result has not come about. The discussion is on whether this is due to the Pen's hesitation and unwillingness or purely to the spiritual blindness of the people. It goes without saying that more is at stake in the full selection than the production of manuscripts, and that one of its primary aims is the instruction of the Baha'is in teaching the faith. This is evident to any of its readers who has ever confronted the practical and spiritual issues that arise when the community sets out to bring the faith to the world. So in some way, it is any rank-and-file Baha'i who is addressed as the Most Exalted Pen.
One consequence that immediately follows is that such a person is conceived as an instrument of God, a lesser being by which God commences a different sort of writing, the form one hears in the words: Write down, then, for me the good of this world and of the world to come (PMB CXXVIII) This is the writing associated with a royal edict. It is an indication of power and authority, in this case over the tablet of the world. Say: O people! How can a fleeting fancy compare with the Self-Subsisting, and how can the Creator be likened unto His creatures, who are but as the script of His Pen? (GWB XCIII) The action of such a person is brought under the command of God; He or she becomes the means by which God writes out the Divine Springtime. But one's freedom remains intact. The dialogue, one might even call it a consultation, between the Pen and its Lord presupposes a freedom of decision in the former on how to advance a chosen course of action.
There are two conflicting directions in which this selection leads the reader. One is in the decisive unequal relation of an instrument and its user. In this case the will and thought of one is all that makes a difference. The other is a more equal relation, in which the Lord urges the pen on in a course of action. Execution of the task at hand is not automatic, as in the use of an inanimate pen. Faithfulness to the text requires that the reader not reduce one direction into the other, erasing either the instrumentality of the pen or its freedom. Baha'u'llah presents both to the reader. The truth is in the tension of these two moments, not their resolution.
The matter is not explored theoretically in the algebra of theological discourse but is dramatized in the enactment of its reality, the struggle of the act of teaching. That the pen, in all its absurdity, is the image Baha'u'llah chooses suggests that there are very few images, perhaps none, that can even adequately convey the spiritual event in question. That the freely willed action of one can be the commanding action of another is exceedingly difficult to describe and advance within any metaphor. This is by no means an indication of its error. The mere proposal of a metaphor, however coherent, is no indication of an argument's rigor; So neither is an incapacity to propose an adequate metaphor any indication of error. What is depicted in this selection makes no sense. But this is an instance in which truth breaks away from the shadows of mere sense and its articulation in a body of acquired knowledge. The act of teaching is the enactment of this truth.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Oppression and its Meaning for Baha'u'llah

The coming of the end and the opening of the new comes about as a reversal of the oppression existing at the time. This is the most enduring feature of this ancient expectation and is for this reason a fundamental context within which to examine the Bab and Baha'u'llah's fulfillment of millenial hope. By examining what Baha'u'llah means by oppression, a Baha'i perspective on justice comes into view. What will become clear is that this pairing is related, fundamentally, to the diffusion, recognition, and application of divine guidance.

Innumerable passages from the world's scriptures anticipate that moment. For the purposes of brevity two will be cited. The first is a saying of Muhammad well known all Shias eagerly anticipating at the time of the Bab the end-times and the arrival of the Qa'im. He [the Qa'im] will then make the earth abound with peace and justice as it will have been fraught before him with persecution and oppression. The second is the passage from the Gospel of Mathew upon which Baha'u'llah comments at length in the Kitab-i-Iqan:

Immediately after the oppression of those days, the sun will be darkened, the moon will not give its light, the stars will fall from the sky and the powers of the heavens will be shaken... And they will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven with power and great glory. (Mt 24.29-30)

Paragraphs 28-31 in contemporary printings of the Kitab-i-Iqan mark out Baha'u'llah's discussion of the above verse. After describing various defining features and examples thereof, Baha'u'llah poses the rhetorical question:

What "oppression" is greater than that which hath been recounted. What oppression is more grievous than that a soul seeking the truth, and wishing to attain unto the knowledge of God, should know not where to go for it, and from whom to seek it? (KI 29)

There is justice in honoring one response a critic might offer to Baha'u'llah's question: genocide, war, famine, epidemic, racism, sexism, discrimination of any kind. These oppressions are far more grievous that that a person is deprived of spiritual truth. Such pain is irrelevant alongside the excruciating burden of material carnage. Fair enough. Such a critic has a strong sense of the challenges facing humanity today. But the focus on specific crimes is perhaps too narrow to encompass the model presented by Baha'u'llah. In the Kitab-i-Aqdas He writes: They whom God hath endued with insight will readily recognize that the precepts laid down by God constitute the highest means for the maintenance of order in the world and the security of its peoples. (K2) Spiritual prosperity contains within it its material counterpart. By attaining to God's most recent guidance, a soul, and the world more broadly, can make use of the highest means by which to address the horrors recounted above. to return to the Kitab-i-Iqan, one can detect the social consequences of this oppression in Baha'u'llah's introduction to the section on oppression, an unyielding condemnation of the clergy of His day.

Such a condition as this is witnessed in this day when the reins of every community have fallen into the grasp of foolish leaders, who lead after their own whims and desire.

[I]n idle fancy they have found the door that leadeth to earthly riches...

[A] number of voracious beasts have gathered and preyed upon the carrion of the souls of men. (KI 28)

By opposing oppression to the recognition of the newly revealed Word of God, one is correct in observing that, in a narrow sense, the Qa'im is not the one who fills the earth with peace and justice. After all, one of the central problems addressed in the Kitab-i-Iqan is that the Qa'im had come, was martyred, and still only a few had followed after Him. If anybody carries out the prophesied task, it is the believers who accept the new revelation following His death. And this is exactly where the material concrete dimensions of justice come into view. The Qa'im initiates a process, within which He sets the course of action by means of His writings, a process that includes and is advanced by the masses of human believers. Baha'u'llah takes up the same theme later in the Kitab-i-Iqan when He discusses the sovereignty of the Manifestation of God and that it is established only to a limited extent during His own lifetime. (KI 114-117)

One could say that Baha'u'llah dodges the real question: How could the Bab be the Qa'im if he didn't fulfill the prophecy? Fair enough. But Baha'u'llah's move is not a dodge so much as it is a deferral, a deferral to human action that is pivotal to the theological framework He sets out in the Kitab-i-Iqan. Baha'u'llah extends the conditions under which the Qa'im takes action to include the mobilization of His followers in His absence. In this world, the Qa'im is but one man. Barring a catastrophic world-miracle, He is in need of assistants to carry out such a dramatic transformation. God in His essence may be without partner. But insofar as He is made manifest with the form of an ordinary human being, the Qa'im is not.

This human assistance is born out in both Christian and Shia Islamic prophecy. In the gospels of Mathew and Mark Jesus describes His return as being accompanied by angels. And he [the Son of Man] will send his angels with a loud trumpet to gather His elect from the four winds, from one end of heaven to the other. Furthermore it is understood that the Qa'im will lead armies across the earth in the execution of His mission. After all, He is the Imam Al-Zaman, Leader of the Age. One can only be a leader if there are those, however few at first, who are led. Worth noting is that oppression of those days is delayed beyond the passing of the Manifestation.

By [oppression] is meant that when the Daystar of Truth hath set, and the mirrors that reflect His light have departed, mankind will become afflicted with "oppression" and hardship, not knowing whither to turn for guidance. (KI 30)

Oppression is held back not just by the Manifestation of God but also by the mirrors that reflect His light. Just as in His discussion of sovereignty later on, the influence, in these words the light of the Manifestation, is extended beyond His limited existence by the aid of a supplement, an assistant, a soul that faithfully lives by the teachings of God. The mirror does not give off its own image. It extends that of another. It takes part in the Appearence, the Mazhar of God (Mazhar usually being translated as Manifestation). In this sense there is justice in including such mirrors within the use of the word "He" in the saying of Muhammad: He will then make the earth abound with peace and justice as it will have been fraught before Him with persecution and oppression. Qa'im (He who ariseth) refers primarily to the Manifestation of God but extends to, and is extended by those who arise to serve his His Cause.

The oppression of the Manifestation of God is comprised not so much of offenses against His person, but of a whole variety of deeds by which humanity is severed from the guidance of His teachings. Justice is the integrity of this connection. When interrrupted it has consequences on both material and spiritual prosperity. Baha'u'llah's initial banishment to Akka was oppressive because lines of communication with Iran were broken; And what accounts did get through contained slanders and news of misbehavior that confused and distracted the Baha'is from the world embracing aims of the faith. The scheming of covenant-breakers and external enemies, the criminal deeds of Baha'is in Akka all produced the same result; attention was drawn away from substantial matters of global significance towards petty controversies. The oppressors were those who squandered, for all humanity, the precious opportunity of a living Manifestation of God. Baha'u'llah was impaired in His ability to raise up a community capable of carrying His mission forward following His death. The triumphs that mark that age are evident; But history will never know to what heights the Baha'is, and with them the whole world, could have soared had the twin Manifestations not been chained up by such small minds.