Review of: Tafsir as Mystical Experience: Intimacy and Ecstasy in Quran Commentary
Boston: Brill Publishers (2018)
Review published in: Reading Religion
(2020 April 30)
Todd Lawson’s Tafsir as Mystical Experience is not a basic book. But it is foundational. For the first time in scholarship, an in-depth description and analysis of the first major work by Sayyid ʿAlī Muḥammad Shīrāzī (1819–1850), better known as “the Báb” (“the Gate”), has now been published. The Báb was the charismatic founder of the remarkably influential, yet short-lived, Babi religion, which evolved into what is known today as the Baha’i Faith, founded by Bahá’u’lláh (Mīrzā Ḥusayn ʿAlī Nūrī, 1817–1892), whose imminent advent the Báb had foretold. In that sense, the Báb has been described by Shoghi Effendi (Guardian of the Baha’i Faith, 1921–1954) in a September 20, 1953 cablegram and elsewhere as the “Co-Founder” of the Baha’i religion.
To oversimplify the history of the Báb and the origins of the Baha’i religion: Shiʿa Islam may be thought of as an eschatologically intensified faith, wherein the Twelfth Imam, “Muḥammad ibn al-Ḥasan (occulted in 874) the hidden Imam, al-Mahdī, al-Qāʾim, al-Ḥujja” (5), disappeared in the year 260 of the Islamic calendar (AH). After a full millennium had elapsed, the Báb, in 1844 (1260 AH), appeared on the historical horizon. In the Tafsīr sūrat Yūsuf, the Báb’s “message to the Shiʿa,” Lawson explains, was that “this is the true Quran that has been in hiding with the 12th Imam until now and its appearance also entails the appearance of the hidden Imam” (1). This was an apocalyptic moment in prophetic time. In Gregorian years, the Báb was a mere (albeit prodigious) youth of twenty-four years old, and an unschooled merchant, who had the sheer audacity to author a commentary on the Quran without being duly “qualified” as a trained Muslim cleric.
The subject matter of the Báb’s treatise, however, predates the birth of the Babi religion itself, quietly and inauspiciously inaugurated on the evening of May 22, 1844, in Shiraz, Persia (present-day Iran), when the Báb declared his prophetic mission to his first disciple, Mullā Ḥusayn Bushrūʾī (d. 1849), at precisely two hours and eleven minutes after sunset. To Mullā Ḥusayn’s astonishment, the Báb extemporaneously revealed the first chapter of his Tafsīr sūrat Yūsuf (Qayyūm al-asmāʾ or Aḥsan al-qaṣaṣ), better known in English as the Commentary on the Sura of Joseph, which Bahá’u’lláh acclaimed as “the first, the greatest and mightiest” (The Kitáb-i-Íqán: The Book of Certitude, 231) of the works revealed by the Báb. Here, by “first,” Bahá’u’lláh likely means the Báb’s first work of divine revelation—described by Lawson as “an unusual commentary on the 12th chapter of the Quran, the sura of Joseph, that was in fact written in the form of a simultaneously new and ancient (viz. badīʿ) Quran” (1).
The Báb’s earlier work, the Tafsīr sūrat al-baqara—which does not explicitly claim to be revelation—was written “in late 1843, early 1844/1259–1260” (1)—and, as such, is the heretofore little-known and therefore understudied precursor to the Báb’s Tafsīr sūrat Yūsuf. As such, Lawson’s Tafsir as Mystical Experience “provides new information on the rise and development of the Babi religion of mid-19th century Iran and its later development, the Bahai Faith” (177).
So what approach does Lawson take? On first glance, the repetition of the word “glory” leaps from the Contents page, literally and figuratively: Introduction, “Entering the House of Glory: Exegesis as Mystical Intimacy with the Divine”; Chapter 1, “Walāya: Luminous Love and Intimacy” (9); Chapter 2, “Tetrads: Architecture of Glory, I” (48); Chapter 3, “Heptads: Architecture of Glory, II” (76); Chapter 4, “Tajallī: Divine Glory Manifested” (116); Chapter 5, “Qāʾim: Divine Glory Embodied” (152); Epilogue, “A Mysticism of the Covenant” (176).
Since the theme of “glory” pervades (and indeed structures, if not suffuses) this entire book, it is crucial to understand how Lawson defines the word in discoursing on the Báb’s mystical thought. “Glory” here refers to the revelation or experiential “presence” of God, manifested in different ways through various mystical encounters—such as beatific vision (i.e., “seeing” God) and/or divine audition (i.e., “hearing” God), which are two peak mystical experiences highly sought after in the classical Sufi tradition and which “for the Báb and his fellow Shiʿis, this would be sacreligious [sic]” (150). Instead, for the Báb, the primary mode of mystical experience is what Lawson characterizes as “wijdān—intensified being, conscience, ecstasy or perhaps even instasy” (147). “The Báb’s mysticism,” Lawson explains, “finally is not directed towards God as such but towards the Imams” (150).
Lawson gives us privileged insights into a particular mode of mystical expectation and experience—that is, the quest for divine encounter through God’s proxy, the eschatological Qāʾim, or “hidden Imam.” The primary value of Tafsir as Mystical Experience is its intense focus on the Báb’s Tafsīr sūrat al-baqara, thereby providing the most immediate and direct “background” and insight into the highly mystical mind of the Báb, in advance of the impending and imminent declaration of his prophetic mission on the evening of May 22, 1844.
That is why Lawson’s treatise on the Báb’s Commentary on the Sura of the Cow offers such valuable insights into the Bab’s later Commentary on the Sura of Joseph. In the interval between the first and second works, a profound transformation had taken place, to wit: while the Báb’s first Tafsir was a discourse on the Qāʾim, whereas the second Tafsir became a discourse by the Qāʾim himself.
So, at a time when the Shiʿa world was expecting the advent of the Qāʾim, the Báb appeared on the eschatological and historical horizon, first by writing about the eschaton, then by personifying it.
Lawson’s style is engaging, with an original and distinctive “voice,” an impressive command of his source material (both primary and secondary), and an exquisitely analytical prowess and illuminating insights—textual, historical, mystical, and otherwise.
By introducing the Báb’s Commentary on the Sura of the Cow, Lawson’s Tafsir as Mystical Experience is prolegomenal and therefore foundational to Babi and Baha’i studies. Lawson’s treatise should be read along with Lawson’s companion study, Gnostic Apocalypse and Islam: Quran, Exegesis, Messianism, and the Literary Origins of the Babi Religion (Routledge, 2011), which describes the Bab’s later Commentary on the Sura of Joseph.
I recommend this book for all university libraries with significant religious studies collections, and further endorse it as an optional text for Islamic studies courses in the modern period, whereby a seemingly esoteric and obscure sectarian movement, in due course, became transformed into a new world religion—that is, the Baha’i Faith, in the full glare—and gleam—of modern history.