Zikr (Remembrance)

Zikr is a practice in Islam (primarily through its mystic branch known as Sufism, but even non-Sufi Muslims do it) whereby one recites or chants a particular Name of God, phrase, or verse from the Qur’an many times as a means to access God. It is similar to the practice of Mantras in Hinduism. It is a very beautiful and positive experience. There is something about simply repeating the names of God over and over, that have a very calming and yet energizing effect on the entire body and mind. Baha’is also practice a daily zikr, by repeating the “greatest name” (Allahu Abha) a minimum of 95 times a day. I would like to see gatherings like this take place in a Baha’i context.

Be Fair (fairness in all things)

I have been reading the Writings more intently lately (as opposed to merely studying them), and a phrase I keep reading over and over is “Be fair”,  and “have fairness in all things.”  Both came from Baha’u’llah’s Pen, but in different context. In one context, he was referring to the sudden rise and popularity of newspapers in the world, and he said that this was a great thing but caution must be taken now that information can be so far reaching and conveyed at such a rapid speed (even more so today!) He admonished the journalists to be as fair as possible, and not to allow their own biases and prejudices to get in the way of fair reporting (a warning that is just as important, if not more in our times.) He was also speaking from experience, because “journalists” would tell lies about him and put them in print like it was no big deal.

In another context, he admonished the people to be fair in their critique of him and his religion. If they genuinely don’t think the Baha’i Faith is a valid faith and that Baha’u’llah is not a true Prophet, then they still did their duty of investigating fairly. But most of the time, the religious leaders’ criticism of Baha’u’llah could be applied to their own religion (just like today’s Islamophobia in Europe and the U.S.). Baha’u’llah’s arguments against these people are very simple and easy to follow, they are not very “clever” and intellectual for the sake of being intellectual. When they decried him as “bringing something new”, he said that if older necessarily meant better, then they should be Christians or Jews instead of Muslims – their communities being older than Muhammad’s Revelation. When they said that Baha’u’llah claimed to be God, he would quote verses from the Qur’an and past Muslim saints/scholars saying the same thing as Baha’u’llah with different words. Indeed, the more I study “classical” Islam, the more I see that Baha’u’llah was reviving a lot of those ideas that had been forgotten by the Muslim community. Thus, when they were calling Baha’u’llah a heretic, they were essentially calling Muhammad and Islam a heretical religion without knowing it. This seems to happen a lot. A new Prophet brings something new, but also revives a lot from the past that got lost, and the people rise against him/her because they think it’s all heresy.

Most importantly, though, is to have fairness with ourselves. We should not over-exalt ourselves, nor beat ourselves up by convincing ourselves that we are not worthy. Yes, many of the prayers have those words in them, but they are not meant to be used to berate ourselves with. When William Sears was appointed a Hand of the Cause by Shoghi Effendi, he sent a telegram back saying “not worthy.” Shoghi Effendi sent him one back, saying “get worthy.” Notice that the Guardian didn’t “refute” Sears’ apprehensions, but flipped it into a positive. As Sen Mcglinn says, “thank God for Shoghi Effendi.” The ego is a tricky bugger, though, so sometimes we can think “being fair” really means “agree with me” or “follow my interpretation.” Even the Central Figures of the Faith practiced humility. ‘Abdu’l-Baha knew that he was appointed by Baha’u’llah as his successor and interpreter, so from a logical point of view he could have “laid down the law” every time someone disagreed with him. But he didn’t. One of his followers even wrote that when people talked to ‘Abdu’l-Baha, he would listen so intently to the guest that the guest would think to himself, “he (‘Abdu’l-Baha) is trying to learn from me!”

This does not mean that ‘Abdu’l-Baha was really “trying to learn” from the man, but his manners and listening skills were so great that that was the impression the man had of him. If we bring back fairness into the equation, does one have a good or bad opinion of ‘Abdu’l-Baha’s character at this point? One could say, “he was just faking it”, but if he already had people willing to practically worship him, why would he even need to “fake” being humble? Fairness indeed. Thank you.

Blessed the Slumberer

Say: Blessed the slumberer who is awakened by My Breeze. Blessed the lifeless one who is quickened through My reviving breaths. Blessed the eye that is solaced by gazing at My beauty. Blessed the wayfarer who directeth his steps towards the Tabernacle of My glory and majesty. Blessed the distressed one who seeketh refuge beneath the shadow of My canopy. Blessed the sore athirst who hasteneth to the soft-flowing waters of My loving-kindness. Blessed the insatiate soul who casteth away his selfish desires for love of Me and taketh his place at the banquet table which I have sent down from the heaven of divine bounty for My chosen ones. Blessed the abased one who layeth fast hold on the cord of My glory; and the needy one who entereth beneath the shadow of the Tabernacle of My wealth. Blessed the ignorant one who seeketh the fountain of My knowledge; and the heedless one who cleaveth to the cord of My remembrance. Blessed the soul that hath been raised to life through My quickening breath and hath gained admittance into My heavenly Kingdom. Blessed the man whom the sweet savours of reunion with Me have stirred and caused to draw nigh unto the Dayspring of My Revelation. Blessed the ear that hath heard and the tongue that hath borne witness and the eye that hath seen and recognized the Lord Himself, in His great glory and majesty, invested with grandeur and dominion. Blessed are they that have attained His presence. Blessed the man who hath sought enlightenment from the Day-Star of My Word. Blessed he who hath attired his head with the diadem of My love. Blessed is he who hath heard of My grief and hath arisen to aid Me among My people. Blessed is he who hath laid down his life in My path and hath borne manifold hardships for the sake of My Name. Blessed the man who, assured of My Word, hath arisen from among the dead to celebrate My praise. Blessed is he that hath been enraptured by My wondrous melodies and hath rent the veils asunder through the potency of My might. Blessed is he who hath remained faithful to My Covenant, and whom the things of the world have not kept back from attaining My Court of holiness. Blessed is the man who hath detached himself from all else but Me, hath soared in the atmosphere of My love, hath gained admittance into My Kingdom, gazed upon My realms of glory, quaffed the living waters of My bounty, hath drunk his fill from the heavenly river of My loving providence, acquainted himself with My Cause, apprehended that which I concealed within the treasury of My Words, and hath shone forth from the horizon of divine knowledge engaged in My praise and glorification. Verily, he is of Me. Upon him rest My mercy, My loving-kindness, My bounty and My glory. (Tablets of Baha’u’llah, the final paragraph of the Lawhi Aqdas – also referred to as the Tablet to the Christians)

I apologize for not having written anything since summer. I’m not the most educated person, so I kind of threw everything I have learned from the Baha’i Faith into three months of writing. Actually, that’s not even true. I tend to read too much in a short period of time, and forget most of it until a year or two later where my brain can finally catch up with everything I stuffed into it. A lot has happened in and outside the Baha’i community since summer. Tunisia and Egypt underwent successful revolutions, galvanizing people to attempt the same in Bahrain, Iran, Algeria and Libya – as well as protesters expressing their rights in the state of Wisconsin (U.S.), and rumors that people in Indiana will follow in their footsteps.

Why Baha’is Shouldn’t Criticize other New Religious Movements (too harshly)

One of the critical things I have heard some Baha’is say about the Church of the Latter Day Saints and Jehovas Witness, is that their religion is filled with failed prophecies, and if they came from God they would get their predictions straight. That is a very reasonable criticism. However, one of Baha’u’llah’s most important works (The Book of Certitude/Kitab-i-Iqan) touches on this very theme of a “failed prophecy.”

“Among the Prophets was Noah. For nine hundred and fifty years He prayerfully exhorted His people and summoned them to the haven of security and peace. None, however, heeded His call. Each day they inflicted on His blessed person such pain and suffering that no one believed He could survive. How frequently they denied Him, how malevolently they hinted their suspicion against Him! Thus it hath been revealed: “And as often as a company of His people passed by Him, they derided Him. To them He said: Though ye scoff at us now, we will scoff at you hereafter even as ye scoff at us. In the end ye shall know.”[Qur'an 11:38.] Long afterward, He several times promised victory to His companions and fixed the hour thereof. But when the hour struck, the divine promise was not fulfilled. This caused a few among the small number of His followers to turn away from Him, and to this testify the records of the best-known books.” (Kitab-i-Iqan, pg. 7, my emphasis)

Baha’u’llah is setting the precedent for the possibility that a prophecy may not come true, not only “in the manner that people expect it”, but a bonafide unfulfilled prediction.

“And now, consider and reflect a moment upon the waywardness of this people. What could have been the reason for such denial and avoidance on their part? What could have induced them to refuse to put off the garment of denial, and to adorn themselves with the robe of acceptance? Moreover, what could have caused the nonfulfilment of the divine promise which led the seekers to reject that which they had accepted? Meditate profoundly, that the secret of things unseen may be revealed unto you, that you may inhale the sweetness of a spiritual and imperishable fragrance, and that you may acknowledge the truth that from time immemorial even unto eternity the Almighty hath tried, and will continue to try, His servants, so that light may be distinguished from darkness, truth from falsehood, right from wrong, guidance from error, happiness from misery, and roses from thorns. Even as He hath revealed: “Do men think when they say ‘We believe’ they shall be let alone and not be put to proof?” (Kitab-i-Iqan, pg. 8-9, my emphasis)

What I am gathering from this lesson is that God sometimes intentionally inspires prophets to predict a happening, and then causes that prediction to not be true, in order to test believers resolve. I must admit that I do find this precedent strange, as the whole point of believing someone has the gift of absolute prophecy, is that they prophecize absolutely…Not sometimes, not mostly correct, but always correct. It even says in the Torah that a prophet should be put to death if his prophecies turn out to be incorrect, as that means God is not speaking through him. This is the very reason why the Jehovas Witnesses are mocked at by other denominations, atheists, agnostics, former Witnesses, etc. They have been predicting the end of the world for nearly a hundred years, and it still hasn’t happened. Some Baha’is have also jumped on this bandwagon, seeing their religion is more tolerant, liberal, and open minded anyway; but by doing so they open themselves up to ridicule as the Prophet Baha’u’llah has clearly set a precedent which allows for a prophecy to go unfulfilled in order to test people’s faith.

When fundamentalist Christian leaders fail a prediction, some of these Baha’is laugh and mock them because it didn’t come true, and yet one of their most holy books says the same thing about Noah (not only that, but that he was doing this for 900 years.) Perhaps this is a common case of “it’s different when we do it” that we all fall prey to at one time or another. Or perhaps it’s because they think the same thing can’t be pinned down on our faith. I’m sure if you look hard enough, you will find at least unfulfilled prediction or prophecy. What this lesson might really be teaching (I’m about to get uber controversial for a moment), is that a prophet is not ultimately infallible and that not every single word they utter or write, comes directly from God. I know that brings up more questions than before, because then we would have to ask ourselves “which words came from God, and which came from himself, or which came partially from God and partially from himself.” I have no interest in such speculations myself, but it does make me wonder.

Then there is this passage from the Kitab-i-Iqan,

“For instance, a certain man, reputed for his learning and attainments, and accounting himself as one of the pre-eminent leaders of his people, hath in his book denounced and vilified all the exponents of true learning. This is made abundantly clear by his explicit statements as well as by his allusions throughout his book. As We had frequently heard about him, We purposed to read some of his works. Although We never felt disposed to peruse other peoples’ writings, yet as some had questioned Us concerning him, We felt it necessary to refer to his books, in order that We might answer Our questioners with knowledge and understanding. His works, in the Arabic tongue, were, however, not available, until one day a certain man informed Us that one of his compositions, entitled Irshadu’l-‘Avám, could be found in this city.” (Kitab-i-Iqan, pg. 184-185, my emphasis)

Does this imply that Baha’u’llah would not have “knowledge and understanding” of the book in question, without first reading through it? If so, then how could he be the all-knowing prophet that we Baha’is love and adore? My whole point in writing all of this is just to show that all religions have some questionable content on the surface level, and even maybe below that, but if you are going to criticize other religious movements for their perceived inaccuracies, then be prepared to meet the same kind of treatment from others.

Are Apologetics Still Necessary?

Apologetics are works that defend one’s faith against real or perceived attacks from individuals, institutions or groups that are hostile to it. In contrast, polemics are works that demonize and attack any group, faith, race, country. Sometimes the two become one, where an apologetic will turn polemical and a polemic will turn apologetical (not as in saying sorry.) While I think that an apologetic by itself serves no harm, the polemical aspect of it has become dangerous and potentially harmful for the ‘world age’ we have entered into. Case in point, the Apostle Paul made it a habit to speak about Jesus in the Synagogues every Sabbath day (a holy day), attempting to convince them of his Messiah. “But when they began to oppose him and insult him, he shook out his clothes in protest and told them, “Your blood be on your own heads! I am innocent. From now on I will go to the gentiles.” (Acts 18:6, my emphasis)

This is not a criticism of Paul, but such an action would be rude and inappropriate in this age. Imagine would it be like today if Christians began going to Synagogues on the Jewish holy day, telling the congregants that they must accept Jesus as the Messiah or go to Hell. Or imagine a repeat of what some of the Babis used to do and go to the Mosques during Friday prayers (the weekly Muslim holy day) and tell the congregants that the Mahdi had come, and that they are wasting their time praying. If Baha’is were to do that today, it would be considered rude and intolerant of other people’s faiths. I can literally not imagine Baha’is doing that because it is so far removed from the saturated repetitions of unity in diversity, acceptance of other faiths, etc. I was watching a Christian apologetic about Islam recently, and the host of the show played a clip of him and some missionary friends debating Muslims at a college campus in Texas. They were being aggressive, rude and disrespectful towards the Muslims faith in order to get the Muslim students worked up and attempt a debate with them. It was a trap, because people on the defensive tend to not have the ability to think clearly, and come up with arguments that are not very sound. The missionaries also had microphone, and the students did not. The missionaries were sitting on top of the steps, overseeing the audience, while the Muslim students were on the walkway like everyone else. This produces a subconscious perception of the missionaries being the authoritative, calm voice, and the Muslim students as being co-equals with the other students listening to the debate. The hope of the missionaries is that the rest of the students would see their co-Muslim students as having no authority in explaining their religion.

The same goes for Muslim debaters like Ahmad Deedat and Zakir Naik, who is pretty much a copycat Deedat. Deedat would often make jokes about prized Christian doctrines, and speak disparagingly about Jesus within the Christian context. He used to have five or six Bibles on his table, and show how all of them had different verse numbers or that some of the verses were taken out altogether. He also made a case from Biblical texts that Jesus was not crucified. One of his favorite lines to his Christian opponent was, “Show me one verse where Jesus says, ‘I am God. Worship Me.’ Show meeee!!!” in a shaky tone. Deedat didn’t always have that attitude, however. He got his start like many prejudiced people get their start; prejudice was hoisted upon him. He used to work in a hardware store/candy shoppe as a teenager, right by a school that taught Christian missionaries how to disprove Islam and lead people to Christ. These students would often use what they had learned from the lessons of the day, and try to plant doubts in his mind about the validity of Muhammad, the Qur’an, etc.  Mind you, this was also during the time of white supremacy, so there was a racial element to this as well. Fed up with being accosted like this, he sought to “arm” himself with knowledge and found a book written in the 19th century, in India, that were all counter-arguments to the Christian missionary efforts to de-Islamicize India. After he learned enough to hold some weight, he started debating these students and then their teachers and the rest is history.

The problem is that when you spend so much time defending your faith against attacks, and making counterattacks, you begin to see the world in spiritual combat terms. Everything said has a hidden meaning behind it that acts as a time bomb that will infiltrate and explode. I think it is true that the world goes through “ages” that have a specific attribute. In the “old days”, “tolerance” meant that you thought other people’s religions were evil and that anyone who followed them would be sent to the lowest level of Hell to be punished by scorching fire and sharp weapons for eternity; and this punishment was deemed severe enough that you could let the infidels live in peace here on earth. Today, such an attitude is regarded as extreme prejudice. In the spiritual age we live in, it is not enough to simply let people live while hoping and wishing that they experience excruciating pain in the afterlife, because in this age it seems that even our words and thoughts have an effect on what we do on the “outside.” Thinking that a group of people are “evil” tends to manifest as treating that group of people as “evil”, and thus become destructive and violent towards the “other.”

Re: Exegesis in the fertile twilight of uncertainty

Below is my comment to Christopher Schwartz’s latest blog entry.

There is a lot I could say about this post, and I don’t know where I should start. Firstly, I agree with your point that the Baha’i Faith should be welcoming to all sincere people whether they have literalistic, liberal, mystic or academic tendencies. This is a beautiful thing, and I hope this continues through the ages. My problem is not so much with the existence of Baha’is with a strict, conservative, or dare say “fundamentalist” (I also agree with your assessment that this word is too broad) temperment.

It’s just that in my experience and those of my friends, these people tend to be more aggressive in how they present their views and are more prone to implicitly or explicitly accuse those with a more “liberal” approach of not being faithful to the Covenant, or worse, are trying to subvert the very foundations of the Faith itself. Whereas I have not observed this type of thing coming from self-professed liberal Baha’is. Perhaps an intellectual snobbery, yes, or an arrogance to their gait. But nothing which would question the very integrity of a strict minded Baha’i’s intentions about their affiliation with the Baha’i Cause itself.

As far as scholarship is concerned, I must admit that I am confused as to what the problem is with being an “academic.” It has become somewhat of a slur in some Baha’i discourse, and the Universal House of Justice calls such people “materialists.” I don’t know what that means. There are different aspects to scholarship and the study of religion. There are apologetics, polemics, and just dry scholarship that calls a spade a spade. For some reason, the Universal House of Justice doesn’t like the latter and I don’t know why. When you’re trying to promote a religion, getting into the apologetic mode is a good thing because you’re essentially making a sales pitch. And just like any good business person, you want the people to come to your way of thinking. But when you’re teaching a class at a university, or you’re just trying to acquire unbiased data and come to an unbiased conclusion as to what that data says, I don’t see what is wrong with that.

Maybe it’s just me, but I see all of these forms of scholarship as being equally valid. Sometimes a religious narrative of its own history is different than the actual history of what happened. As far as telling the story goes, I don’t have a problem with that. If it is meant to provide inspiration and guidance, then the smudging of facts doesn’t bother me. But at the same time, I like to study other sources that may present a different view to see if the actual history as opposed to the “sacred history” is different. This is not a conflict for me. This is why I get concerned when the Universal House of Justice calls academic scholars “materialists”, which I still don’t know what that means.

So as far as Baha’is who go by every word of the religious narrative, by all means continue to do so. It’s a wonderful narrative, it’s inspiring, it really gets to peoples hearts and inspires them to do great things. So by all means, continue. But let us also allow the academics to do their work as well

Baha’u’llah as the Defender of Islam

One of the many conspiracy theories relating to the Baha’i Faith, is that the founders of the religion were enemies of Islam. This starts with the Bab’, but it really goes back to the early days of Shaykh Ahmad-i-Ahsa’i and his “school” (I’m not sure if Shaykh Ahmad viewed himself in the same light as the Baha’i narrative does, but that’s okay because that is the nature of narratives. They’re not supposed to be totally accurate portrayals.) As Nicholas Bridgewater points out in one of his blog posts, Ahsa’i was looked upon as a heretic by the majority of the Twelver Shi’a ‘ulama of Iran for his teaching that one could receive direct guidance from the 12 Imams, including the Imam Mahdi. They understood the implications of this, which meant that all of their education and hard work could be brought to naught if people were led to believe that they could receive spiritual guidance from something other than them.

In the early days, becoming a scholar of Islam was a wordly and financial sacrifice. Most of them were poor as far as earthly standards were concerned, and spent the majority of their days studying. Those who showed themselves to be worthy of emulating had authority as far as religious instruction was concerned, but had little power to coerce anyone to follow their advice. Nor did they want such power. But by 19th century Persia, being a religious scholar was a popular status symbol and it had its financial perks as well.  In the business world, this would be called a niche, and it was a potential cash crop. You don’t want someone messing that up by undoing everything you’ve worked for, by claiming that the very source of their knowledge (the Imams) can appear in people’s visions and dreams, and give them direct guidance. So you call them a heretic, infidel, kafir, hypocrite, fasiq. This has the impression that they are the pious religious ones, and their opponents are the godless. As it turns out, not all of them actually cared too much for Islam in their heart of hears, but simply used it as a racket to make them successful.

To accentuate my point, I relate a story from The Revelation of Baha’u’llah, Volume 3;

” The following story demonstrates this point. It concerns Mirza Taqi
Khan-i-Amir Nizam, who for many years was Persia’s Prime Minister
during
the reign of Nasiri’d-Din Shah. It was he who ordered the execution
of the
Bab
, and committed great atrocities against the Babi community.

 ‘Abdu’l-Baha recounts that one day Mirza Taqi Khan attended a
 gathering (presumably in Tihran) at which Baha’u’llah was present.
He was
 referring to some verses of the Qur’an in a disrespectful manner and
 mockingly questioned the truth of the following verse:

   He knoweth that which is on the dry land and in the sea;
   there falleth no leaf, but he knoweth it; neither is there a
   single grain in the dark parts of the earth, neither a green
   thing, nor a dry thing, but it is written in the perspicuous
   book [Qur'an].

 Baha’u’llah’s immediate response was to disapprove the attitude of
Mirza
 Taqi Khan and to affirm that the above verse was undoubtedly true.
When
 he asked for further explanation, Baha’u’llah told him that it meant
that
 the Qur’an was the repository of the Word of God; it contained
various
 subjects such as history, commentaries, prophecies and so on. Within
its
 pages were enshrined verities of great significance and indeed one
might
 discover that everything was mentioned in this Book.

   ‘Am I mentioned in it?’ asked Mirza Taqi Khan arrogantly.
   ‘Yes, you are,’ was Baha’u’llah’s prompt response.
   ‘Am I alluded to or referred to clearly by name?’ he asked.
   ‘Clearly by name,’ Baha’u’llah stated.

 ‘It is strange’, Mirza Taqi Khan retorted with some degree of
sarcasm,
 ‘that I have not yet found a reference to myself in the Qur’an!’

 ‘The reference to your name’, Baha’u’llah said, ‘is in this verse:
“She
 said, I fly for refuge unto the merciful from thee if thou art
Taqi.”‘[1]
 [1 Naturally, those who rendered the Qur'an into English have
 translated the word 'Taqi', which means 'fearful'.]

 On hearing such a disparaging reference attributed to him by
Baha’u’llah,
 Mirza Taqi Khan became extremely angry, but did not reveal his
anger.
 Instead he made a further attempt to ridicule the verse of the
Qur’an in
 question and discredit Baha’u’llah. He asked, ‘What about my father,
 Qurban, is there a reference to him in the Qur’an also?’

   ‘Yes, there is,’ Baha’u’llah affirmed.
   ‘Is he alluded to or referred to by name?’ he asked.
   ‘He is referred to by name in this verse,’ responded Baha’u’llah,
   “‘… come unto us with the Qurban[1] consumed by fire.”‘
 [1 Translated as 'sacrifice'.] (emphasis mine)

What is so ironic about this story is that the perceived enemy of Islam (Baha’u’llah) turned out to be the defender of the Muhammadan Way, and the perceived upholder of Islam openly mocked the Qur’an. And the fact that this man ordered the execution of the Bab’ on (I presume) religious grounds, only accentuates the hypocrisy of this system of supposed religious orthodoxy. Another example of Baha’u’llah’s defense of Islam is in the form of this prayer which he revealed on behalf of Muslims everywhere.

He is God – Exalted be He, the Lord of Majesty and Power!

I plead my grief and sorrow unto God, the Lord of all humankind. The affairs of men have been shaken, the nations have become perturbed and Islam has been weakened thereby. The enemies have afflicted it from all sides and it remains encompassed by them. Thus it behooveth the people of God to invoke Him in the morning and the night-season, to beseech Him to graciously aid the Muslims, one and all, to do that which is pleasing and seemly, to exalt them by His Command and through the power of His Sovereign Might, to make them aware of that which will exalt their stations, to change their abasement into might, their poverty into wealth, their destruction into advancement, their distress into peace of mind and their fear into security and tranquility.

Verily, He is the All-Merciful. There is none other God but Him, the Compassionate, All-Bountiful.

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