28 June 2009

Justice and the Independent Investigation of Reality

Of the many ideas propounded by ‘Abdu’l-Baha, among the most appealing and distinctive is the independent investigation of reality. With this principle, He called His listeners to think for themselves, explore new ideas, and break free from the out-moded standards prevailing around them. He presents it as essential to the realization of the hopes expressed in His writings and talks: the ennobling of humanity, the harmony of science and religion, universal peace, the unity of the world’s religions, the recognition of Baha’u’llah as the Manifestation of God for today. Evident throughout His Father’s writings, this principle is linked to the idea of justice. From the Hidden Words the reader finds: The best beloved of all things in My sight is Justice... By its aid thou shalt see with thine own eyes and not through the eyes of others, and shalt know of thine own knowledge and not through the knowledge of thy neighbor;[1] and in “the Words of Wisdom” The essence of all that We have revealed for thee is Justice, is for man to free himself from idle fancy and imitation, discern with the eye of oneness His glorious handiwork, and look into all things with a searching eye.[2] This connection with justice illustrates the role independent investigation must play in the establishment of God’s justice.

Independent investigation finds its opposite in imitation, the basic problem of which is its overly social nature. Imitation is to look to the deeds and sayings of one’s peers, past and present, rather than to the insight one could have into the real conditions under consideration. With imitation, people are content to do what everyone else is doing. This can come through the reproduction of patterns inherited from past generations or, in another sense, through their very dissolution. The unending parade of trends and fashions, new technologies and consumer good is just as indictable, inasmuch as it can be characterized by the unthinking imitation of one’s peers. In this way, social bonds and antagonisms take great precedence. In turn, they are increasingly received as natural, inevitable, perhaps even sacred. ‘Abdu’l-Baha warns of the danger this poses in one of His many statements on World War I.

And the breeding-ground of all these tragedies is prejudice: prejudice of race and nation, of religion, of political opinion; and the root cause of prejudice is blind imitation of the past—imitation in religion, in racial attitudes, in national bias, in politics. So long as this aping of the past persisteth, just so long will the foundations of the social order be blown to the four winds, just so long will humanity be continually exposed to direst peril.[3]

‘Abdu’l-Baha’s teachings on this principle are founded on the notion that humans can have knowledge of a unique reality. Imitation holds people from this firm cord, allowing them to drift in the proliferation of differences. But for ‘Abdu’l-Baha, and indeed the entire Baha’i faith, humanity is not doomed to clashes of opinion, religion, ideology, or culture. Shared knowledge of a common reality can serve as a basis for the unity of the human race.

Among these teachings was the independent investigation of reality so that the world of humanity may be saved from the darkness of imitation and attain to the truth; may tear off and cast away this ragged and outgrown garment of a thousand years ago and may put on the robe woven in the utmost purity and holiness in the loom of reality. As reality is one and cannot admit of multiplicity, therefore different opinions must ultimately become fused into one.[4]

It is easy to mistake the expression “independent investigation of reality” as tolerance, even encouragement, of the proliferation of different perspectives. Certainly, it implies that one must not force one’s views on another. But it also requires that people strive for agreement on the basis that there is one reality that all are to investigate using their own intelligence. This is not to dismiss differences, as if they are entirely superficial or insubstantial, that with a bit of reflection they can easily be surmounted; or to confuse difference with conflict or violence. ‘Abdu’l-Baha is famous for celebrating the frank and loving exchange of views. And whether it be in His promotion of modernization in Iran (notably in The Secret of Divine Civilization) or the manner in which He introduced Western believers into the predominantly Middle Eastern Baha’i community, ‘Abdu’l-Baha never settled for cultural imperialism. The independent investigation of reality proceeds as a de-socialization of thought rather than the imposition of one social position over others. The idea is that earnest and thoughtful investigation can expose errors and misunderstandings left to fester when imitation holds sway. When a great number of people live and act by this principle, their views will become increasingly harmonious. Similarly, the “independent” nature of this investigation does not mean it is performed alone or without the assistance of others. ‘Abdu’l-Baha’s frequent promotion of consultation demonstrates this beyond a doubt. In passage after passage, independent investigation is opposed to imitation, not cooperation. Any collaborative inquiry by which participants actively engage their own intelligence is clearly acceptable within this framework. Indeed, taken with ‘Abdu’l-Baha’s statements on consultation, it would be preferable.

People must show an effort so as to become more knowledgeable about what’s happening around them. They must develop those capacities, latent within the human form, that allow them to discover and meditate upon their situation. This is another way in which the establishment of God’s justice requires the deployment of specifically human powers. In one piece of correspondence ‘Abdu’l-Baha praises two of His followers for displaying the independent investigation of reality. For the imitator saith that such a man hath seen, such a man hath heard, and such a conscience hath discovered; in other words he dependeth upon the sight, the hearing and the conscience of others and hath no will of his own. Now, praise be to God, ye have shown will-power and have turned to the Sun of Truth.[5] Worth noting is that people do not imitate others at random. It is often tied into structures of power, within which certain individuals are deemed more worthy of imitation than others. It is assumed that these individuals are more qualified to take the lead. Therefore, for the sake of unity, the great majority should hold back their own insight in deferment to the views of these elite few; which is not to say that even this small group are necessarily united amongst themselves. This, of course, is referring to clericalism; and more specifically, to the history of Shia Islam and the direct endorsement of imitation encountered therein. With this as His context, ‘Abdu’l-Baha is discussing universal participation in a way that includes not only the labor of the masses, but their insight and discernment as well. The independent investigation of reality is a principle by means of which human thought can become a rallying point for the realization of God’s justice.
[1] HWA 2
[2] TB p.156
[3] SWAB 202.3-4
[4] Ibid 227.7
[5] Ibid 14.1-2


  1. I like this part a lot:

    "The independent investigation of reality proceeds as a de-socialization of thought rather than the imposition of one social position over others. The idea is that earnest and thoughtful investigation can expose errors and misunderstandings left to fester when imitation holds sway."

    This post is great. It does a lot to show how the institute process of today can be tied back directly to the teachings of Abdu'l Baha. I think a lot of people are looking for that link.

  2. :"But it also requires that people strive for agreement on the basis that there is one reality that all are to investigate using their own intelligence."
    so, other than the Logos,Who is It, who can perceive a "one reality"?
    and if imperceptible, is this not functionally the same as "not so much"?
    continued @

  3. j&b dances,

    From a Baha'i point of view, we can only have faith that there is one reality, which humans perceive only in small fragments, according to our spiritual/evolutionary capacity. Through the act of independent investigation of truth and consultation, we can piece together some of the fragments that individuals carry, and collectively get closer to it. But again, we strive for agreement because we have faith that this is leading us closer to ultimate truth

  4. The ontology I'm working with within this project is based on that of Alain Badiou, who tries to move on from post-modern critiques of onto-theology without falling back into logocentrism.

    I was a little uneasy about posting this essay, basically for the reason you point out. This is part of a broader project in which, soon after this section, I explain how I use some of these terms.

    For the purposes of this essay, unique reality refers to the urepeatability of a given situation, i.e. the exact contours of this occurence have never happened before and will never appear again. Unique reality, thus, does not refer to, divine omniscience, or a substance undergirding phenomena.

    This unique reality can be the basis for consultation inasmuch as multiple people can take part in it. This isn't because they experience the same thing. It's more subtle than that. It can augment consultation.

    Clearly, it's a very difficult problem. The formulation and usage of these ideas is an ongoing concern, one that I have always found amusing.