10 June 2010

Baha'i Faith as Derivative?

Mavaddat wrote: "Dr. Shelly Kagan energetically refutes the idea of an eternal or metaphysical soul that lives beyond the body through a series of lectures to his undergraduate class.

Since 'Abdu'l-Bahá was working within an Islamic neo-Platonic framework, he wouldn't have been familiar with the philosophical objections to the idea of the soul, and this is reflected in his writings and lectures."

A popular movement in academics is to outline the historical context and possible influences of charismatic leaders of sorts, political movements, and religious movements. By giving this explanation, and leaving it at that, the implicit message is that each of these phenomena can be reducible (and seen to have been caused) by this historical context.

Each revelation does speak in a language that takes on certain signs and symbols of historical contexts to communicate its message. 'Abdu'l-Baha did use the motifs of light and illumination to explain many metaphysics; Baha'u'llah's assertions did have certain, at-least outwardly, resemblances to some European Enlightenment philosophers as well as Islamic philosophers. Baha'u'llah also did use a number of Sufi writings and forms of thought in His writings, esp. such as the Seven Valleys and Gems of Divine Mysteries. Yet each one often re-defines these traditional terms within the context of their own writings to instill in them fresh meanings.
And so, instead of historical context, Baha'is see the main derivation of each one's writings as Divine Revelation and inspiration.

On this, I have a number of questions:
1) What are the intellectual presumptions that makes the above-described mode of research so popular right now?
2) What is a productive way for Baha'is to approach such claims of mere historical/contextual production?
3) Do Baha'is have a role in contributing to such research, not merely responding to claims we don't agree with?
3.a.) How can this be done in a way that combines in balance the claims of the Baha'i Faith and its epistemologies of Revelation and Reason?


  1. Daniel,

    Thanks for asking these important questions. I am curious to get other's take on them. I have often wondered about the materialistic and socio-historical interpretation of Baha'i history without being able to form a coherent approach to it. I think the intellectual presumption that makes it so popular is the fact that it doesn't require Revelation, and therefore has no requirement of faith and belief to make it intelligible. It allows somebody to view the central figures as mere products, albeit enlightened products, of their time.

    I am not a scholar so maybe this is out of my depth, but it seems like options for finding common ground have to contend with the fact that the epistemology of Revelation ultimately comes down to faith. There is a fundamentally different assumption from the get go. However, any epistemology of reason also has to rest on certain a-priori assumptions that are ultimately based on certain values and beliefs. Therefore, I don't think the question is whether we can adapt to THE epistemology of reason, but whether our epistemology of reason, resting on some core assumptions, mainly that of teleology and revelation, can find collaboration with their epistemology of reason, which also rests on some core assumptions, such as materialism.

  2. a fantastic topic!

    Modernity and the Millenium works within a framework of making a clear separation between historiography and theology. Its disciplinary boundaries are a legacy of the long struggle to keep academic research independent from the influence of church authorities. Making claims of divine intervention within a scholarly work has been out of the question for quite some time. Considering the prevalence of religious fanaticism today, it would be foolish to discard such a standard without thinking long and hard about the consequences. Nonetheless, it's a form of soft oppression to be incapable of thinking outside the materialist box. It's risky to do so. But it needs to be done if we're ever going to get past tortured attempts by professed Baha'is to describe the origins of the Baha'i Faith solely in terms of a "social movement."

    There are, I'm sure, many ways to respond to historical reductionism. I, for one, think its philosophical foundations are unsound; So it needs to be rethought from the ground up. But for most of us, I think its fine to just remind people that acounts like Cole's operate under the assumption that the possibility of God's intervention is irrelevant to historical research, and that their work has to assume that if they're going to be taken seriously by their colleagues and employer. Their work refuses to address the question of whether or not God has intervened in human history. So that question must be taken elsewhere. I think enough is known about Baha'u'llah historically to demonstrate that there's more to the story than Neo-Platonism and reformist politics. Whether or not Baha'u'llah is a Manifestation of God is something we all have to investigate independently. Historical reductionist analyses might be helpful in some respects. But at the heart of the matter, each individual is responsible for seeing with their own eyes and not through the eyes of others.

    But just working within the confines of modern scholarship, there are some conclusions I've seen that just represent lazy analysis. For example, glossing Baha'u'llah's Baghdad writings as mere "Sufism" and therefore not divine revelation is pretty lame. Sufism is an intellectual and mystical tradition in which writers are continually contesting each other's ideas. The fact that Baha'u'llah uses Sufi terminology proves he was writing for an audience accustomed to using Sufi terminology, not that he sees himself as a follower of Ibn-Arabi or other writers within the tradition.

  3. When I first stated reading this article, I thought, great, nice topic and so on, until I got to the reductionist lie about Juan Cole's book
    "Juan RI Cole in Modernity and Millenium makes an argument about certain European philosophers who must have influenced Baha'u'llah's turn to World Order thinking during his last 20 years."

    Juan is writing about a history of ideas, and about similiar ideas going on the European and Arab worlds, and in relation to Baha'u'llah's ideas, but he does not reduce nor claim that Baha'u'llah was influenced by European philosophers as Daniel Azim Pschaida claims in the quotation above. Please provide page numbers or quotations from Juan's book and we can discuss this further or please retract your statement which is worse than backbiting which slants the truth. This statement is not true.

  4. On page 68 Cole makes an interesting statement about how he sees his work.

    "I am not so much interested here in demonstrating an influence of one movement on another as in pointing to the intertextuality of reformist thought in this period, of the ways in which some ideas were in the air." p.68

    He's making a point of trying to avoid one-way-street conclusions about influence. This is good. He does a pretty good job of sticking to this. But I think the most important issue isn't who influenced who. It's about how do we speak frankly and non-dogmatically about claims to divine inspiration happening within these intertextual exchanges.

    It comes back to the Manifestation of God. The mirror reflecting the divine light isn't just a physiological being. It's also a cultural being. The light of divine inspiration can only illumine the world if it shines through a language and a culture passed on by others.

  5. Thanks "Mr Cat" but I hope Daniel will remove that sentence in his article if he doesn't provide a quotation from Juan's book in support of having it there.

    If there is no support, then slamming an academic with such a statement is not only bad form, it shows the world that Bahais do this sort of thing. That is to dismiss someone's research by misrepresentation. If it is a minor point in the article, once it is removed I'll read the rest and see if I can contribute to the discussion.

  6. My goal was not to discuss the merits and details of Cole's scholarship itself, as honestly, I'm not familiar enough with it to do so. My goal is rather to gain insights, as has been begun to be offered by Jason and Mr. Cat, as to how Baha'is might strike important balances in their scholarship - so that it might be palatable to academia as not 'merely' Baha'i theology - between Baha'u'llah's claims to divine revelation and that of historical context.

    Nevertheless, even while - as Mr. Cat points out - reducing the Baha'i revelation to Baha'u'llah's historical context is not the main nature of his work, and as you pointed out that it basically an intellectual history, he does partly give such arguments within this work. One is that Baha'u'llah's concept of political sovereignty of his first 20 yrs. of His writing career were "probably influenced by the Sufi enthusiasms of his youth." (Cole, p. 29)
    A second (minor) thesis is that Baha'u'llah changed his ideas on political sovereignty to democratic ideals probably from other prisoners in Akka. (Cole, 60-61, 73, 191, 207 note 39)
    Meanwhile, I will confess that my knowledge of these arguments in Cole's work is mostly through the lens of Nader Saiedi's Logos and Civilization, as parts of Saiedi's work is to provide certain responses to this scholarship.
    If anyone can show me that Saiedi has a gross misreading of those passages of Cole's work, I'll be happy to take away those comments. Meanwhile, do understand that my references were introductory ideas to explore the three questions I laid out, not to make it a post particularly on Professor Cole's work, nor to pick on him.

  7. 1) There is an intellectual presumption that divine revelation doesn't exist, and there must be a materialist explanation.

    2) I don't think Baha'is necessarily need to address each and every concern. For the vast majority of mankind this is a non-issue, unrelated to the more important aspects of their lives that are bettered by the Faith. The exact same controversies have swirled around Jesus' life for two thousand years and nothing has come of it.

    3) I'm not sure what role Baha'is will play. I know certain scholarly types get really worked up about the historicity of how the Faith developed. There is a claim perpetuated by the Iranian government that the Bab recanted his faith under torture. No matter how good the evidence to support it is, no matter how academically documented it may be, it doesn't matter. I don't believe in the Faith based on the historical authenticity of any event, so why would the same cause me to lose my belief? It's the truth and power of the Word of God that attracts people. It's the emotional connection, stupid.

  8. Hi Sonja,
    I'm going to have to learn to write my responses on MicroSoft Word first, as twice over now, I've pushed a wrong button and lost a long post I wrote out. :(

    But in summary the nature of it was:
    1) I'm still not able to see how including the entire passage has changed either the particular or general meaning of that specific passage that Saiedi critiques.
    2) Nonetheless, you've been helpful in challenging me and making me aware that it is likely unfair for me to include such statements, even in passing, without sufficient information through having read the work myself.
    3) Thank you for McGlinn's review. It looks excellent and I plan to read it in more detail when I'm more awake.
    4) This blog has taking actually a wonderful turn towards the topic of Ethics in Blogging. It would be wonderful for all of us to further, perhaps in its own separate topic, on this basic and important issue.
    5) I'm slowly working my way through Gate of the Heart as well, and find it a rich door to better appreciate the Writings of the Bab.

  9. I have to agree with Daniel on the context of the passage. It doesn't seem to be misrepresented at all. Cole says that Baha'u'llah was influenced by Sufis and others, whereas I believe the appropriate Baha'i approach is that those others were picking up on the currents released by Baha'u'llah's revelation or that the revelation was responsive to the needs of the time. It's a subtle difference but an important one. Cole's approach mirrors the academic approach of reducing Baha'u'llah, Jesus and Muhammad to products of their generation, not divine in origin. Anyone is free to do that, but being a Baha'i seems to imply an opposition to that attitude. As Daniel said, "By giving this explanation, and leaving it at that, the implicit message is that each of these phenomena can be reducible (and seen to have been caused) by this historical context. "

    The fact that Cole, in doing this met resistance in trying to get his book published through the Baha'i review process, is not surprising. This is the very issue Daniel is trying to reflect and generate discussion on.

  10. I want to second Daniels call for continued conversation about ethics in blogging. I have often wondered about this in the context of this site, it is nice that it is starting to be explored.

  11. As a contribution to the purposes of this topic, I just happened upon this passage from Taherzadeh's Revelation of Baha'u'llah while I've been doing research for a paper I'm writing on Baha'i pilgrimage. I think in this scholarship Taherzadeh strikes an exemplary balance between presenting a (fairly normative) Baha'i theology on the subject and that of understanding the historical context of the specifics of the practice (in this case genuflections). However, if written as book for the world at large (instead of Baha'is and those investigating the Faith as his apparent primary audience) the language might be modified that present this theology as a Baha'i understanding, instead of what Taherzadeh does, in just presenting it as naturally the way things are.

  12. Here is that passage:
    "Bahá'u'lláh has revealed three obligatory prayers for the individual and has enjoined on him to recite one of these prayers every day. These are known as the long, the medium and the short obligatory prayers. In the first two Bahá'u'lláh has ordained certain genuflectory actions which are designed to heighten man's devotion and servitude to his Creator.

    "In order to appreciate the significance of these actions let us recall that the human personality of the Manifestation of God influences the form of the religion He founds. We have discussed this theme in a previous volume.[1] To cite one example: we know that the Word of God in its innermost reality is exalted above and independent of any language. It emanates from the Kingdom of Revelation,[2] and as such it is limitless in its potency and far removed from the material world. However, this spiritual entity is clothed within the mantle of the 'spoken word' which is limited and belongs to the world of man. This is one way in which the personality of the Manifestation of God affects the form of religion. Since Bahá'u'lláh was a native of Persia, the Word of God has been revealed in the Persian and Arabic languages. Had the person of the Manifestation of God been a native of another land, the revealed Word would have assumed a different form altogether.
    [1 See vol. 1, pp. 21-2.]
    [2 See vol. 2, pp. 184-5.]

    The effect of the personality of the Manifestation on His religion is not limited to influencing the Word of God. It affects almost every feature of that religion. The genuflectory actions ordained in the obligatory prayers provide an example, for this important religious rite has been formulated and to some extent influenced by the personality of Bahá'u'lláh. These genuflections are intended to convey symbolically man's attitude towards his Lord. The combination of the words uttered with the actions that accompany them will bring about a greater consciousness of the sovereignty of God and of man's impotence and poverty in this life.

    The form that these actions take, however, is based in Bahá'u'lláh's own personal background. In the society in which He was brought up, the language was Persian and there were certain expressions which were conveyed by the movements of one's hands or body. Similar to the use of the Persian language in the revelation of the Word of God Bahá'u'lláh has incorporated these movements, which were known to Him, to express symbolically various feelings such as humility, supplication and servitude to God.

    "Every culture has its own language and customs. The person of the Manifestation of God from the human point of view abides within His own environment. He expresses himself like the rest of His countrymen. In the Persian culture it was customary to raise one's hands towards heaven when supplicating the Lord, or to bend one's body when showing humility or to prostrate oneself before one's God when expressing one's utter nothingness before Him. These actions Bahá'u'lláh has incorporated in the obligatory prayers in order to increase the ardour and devotion of the servant when praying to his Lord and to demonstrate both by words and by action, the loftiness, the grandeur and the glory of God, while recognizing his own station of servitude at His threshold.
    (Adib Taherzadeh, The Revelation of Baha'u'llah v 3, p. 348-350)