01 August 2009

Pre-Baha'i Scripture in the Baha'i Faith

Recently, I’ve found myself spending more time in the Bible. This usually happens every year or so. For a while I will immerse myself in the Good Book and then once I’m satisfied I’ll go back to focusing on the Baha’i Writings. Typically, I end up ruminating for a while on the status of pre-Baha’i scripture within the Baha’i Faith. The question always centers around two seemingly competing dynamics implicit to the idea of progressive Revelation. Baha’u’llah conceives of the previous dispensation as different stages in the development of one common faith. So, on the one hand, this means that they are all united. Just as Christians regard the Book of Exodus and the Gospel of Matthew as two repositories of the Word of God, so too do Baha’is regard the Book of Isaiah, the Qur’an, the Baghavad Gita, and the Hidden Words as separate parts of one enormous body of revealed writings. But on the other hand, each Dispensation is revealed for that specific period of history. It is binding upon all to turn their eyes to the most recent instances of Divine Revelation. In Catholicism, there is a tradition of prioritizing different books of the Bible. Whenever contradictions arise the New Testament always trumps the Old Testament. And when there are contradictions within the New Testament, the four Gospels trump the other books. Baha’is are encouraged to learn the Qur’an. But they’re encouraged to do so on the assumption that they already have a firm knowledge of the Baha’i Writings. The multidudinous instances of the Word of God are all united. But they do not sit on an equal basis.

Undoubtedly, in the future, there will be Baha’i scholars who will devote the bulk of their attention to these earlier Dispensations. Even though, they may be pursuing it as a project within the Baha’i Faith, they may focus their energies on learning Sanskrit or Hebrew, write dissertations on the introduction of Mahayana Buddhism to China, or explore the confluence of ideas between two indigenous traditions. This may seem like a qualitative break with the contemporary approach of encouraging Baha’is to focus first and foremost on the Baha’i Writings. But in fact, it has more to with the quantitative dimensions of the faith.

Let’s suppose that 0.01 percent of a Baha’i community’s energy should go to exploring the tensions and overlap between the Gospel of John with the other three Gospels. (I personally think it should be closer to 0.03- 0.04 percent. But that’s just me) ;) If there is a community of forty people, devoting equal amounts of energy to the faith and there is one person who devotes a fifth of her energy to that question then that means the community overshoots that proportion by a scale of five. Perhaps, it would be better if that person focused on the more vital issues confronting that community. But let’s say in a few generations time, that community swells to 40,000 and there are twenty people devoting half their time to that question. If that’s the case, then the community needs to quadruple the energy it devotes to the issue if they are to meet that proportion. They may even need to have some people focus on it exclusively in order to keep things balanced.

In other words, the small size of the Baha’i community right now means that we must be very vigilant about how we prioritize our efforts. But as we grow, endeavors undertaken by Baha’i communities will blossom and become more and more diverse. For now, what matters most is that Baha’is focus on the vital functions of the faith, so that as we grow we can advance the process of more fully setting in motion the noble and ambitious vision Baha’u’llah sets out in His Writings.

More on this later…


  1. I think another area of inquiry will be how the scriptures relate to conditions on the ground. I just read the book "The Evolution of God". While Wright does believe in a direction in history and towards greater moral consideration, he sees scriptures as explainable by the cultural evolution and geopolitical conditions on the ground. He goes through Judaism, Christianity, and Islam using this framework. In the Hebrew Bible for example, he argues that god seems very moody depending on the relative condition of the Jews. After the exile, when they are protected by the Persion Empire, the moral consideration of scriptures grows considerably. Before the Exile, King Josiah is pretty keen on killing all non-Jews. He also argues that their conception of god(s) evolved from polytheism, to monolatrism, to monotheism, all of which can be explained the same way. This seems kind of like Baha'i belief, without the revelation. While I disagreed with many of it points, I think it is a serious (and arguably more scientific) critique to our approach, something we should take seriously.

  2. I think it's up to individual Baha'is where they put research energy. It is not easy to research and write about a subject; it requires dedication and focus. You can't just say to people: sorry, we don't need that; do something else instead. Most of the time the other thing will be done half-heartedly, or they'll spend the time watching television instead. You can exhort or encourage people to focus on something, but don't criticize them if they focus on something else. Besides, you never know when the "odd" bit of research and writing will yield unexpectedly useful fruit.

  3. Of course, there is no central planning for personal priorities.

    Nonetheless, the Institutions do place great emphasis on individuals and communities to prioritize their efforts. And when it comes down to it, this often means that people set aside certain activities to make room for the essential requirements of the Five Year Plan. I know I've chosen to set many things aside because they just weren't timely.

  4. I personally think that the Qur'an and the Baha'i Writings offer unique expressions of the same Voice of God. When I read the Baha'i Writings, I feel very uplifted and joyful. But when I read the Qur'an, a soberness kicks in. I don't think I can trade in one for the other.