Logos and Civilization: Spirit, History, and Order in the Writings of Bahá'u'lláh
Author: Nader Saiedi
Publisher: University Press of Maryland, Bethesda, 2000, 404 pages
Reviewers: Seena Fazel and Dominic Brookshaw
Nader Saiedi, a sociologist at Carleton College in the USA, has undertaken an ambitious task. His book is framed as a response to those who have analysed Bahá'u'lláh's writings in "hasty", "premature" and "reductionist" ways, and presented Bahá'u'lláh's teachings to "fit into the mold of traditional Eastern categories from Neoplatonism to Islamic Sufism, or modern western ones from liberalism to postmodernism" (8). Saiedi wants to redress the "current reductive approach" (28) and "current Middle East Studies approach" (42) in Bahá'ís scholarship. He states his aim is to show that, "Bahá'u'lláh's complex vision transcends all of the given Eastern or western categories... and that His writings must be read on their own terms and in light of their own hermeneutical principles and creative and novel approaches to metaphysics, mysticism, historical dynamics, ethics, and social/political theory" (8). The first few chapters explore some of the major works of Bahá'u'lláh—the Seven Valleys, the Four Valleys, the Kitáb-i íqán, the Kitáb-i Badí', and the Kitáb-i Aqdas—in the light of these approaches.
The most useful section of the book is an analysis of the Kitáb-i Badí`,
of which little has previously been written in English. Written in Edirne (c.1867),
the Kitáb-i Badí`, which Saiedi translates as "Wondrous New Book"
(though "Wondrous Book" or "Unique Book" might be a more faithful rendering) is
perhaps Bahá'u'lláh's most important apologia. Saiedi's summary
of Mírzá Mihdí Rashtí's arguments against Bahá'u'lláh
(179-180) and Bahá'u'lláh's detailed and elaborate response (183-209)
provide fascinating reading. Of particular interest are Bahá'u'lláh's
criticism of Mírzá Mihdí Rashtí's written Persian
(202), and Bahá'u'lláh's defence of frequenting Baghdad's coffeehouses
in order to win friends for the Babis (208). Other strong areas in Logos and
include the discussion of Bahá'í responses to Saint-Simon
(313ff) and Hobbes (318ff).
A problem at the heart of the book is Saiedi's attitude towards methodology. Repeatedly he states that Bahá'u'lláh's writings transcend all categories, only then to use sociological ones to define them (in addition to creating categories of his own). In one page alone, we are presented with three new categories by which to understand the Kitáb-i Aqdas: the three realms of existence (God, the manifestations, and creation), Bahá'u'lláh's metaphysics of "being, revelation, and will", and the twin duties that are part of "an inseparable triad of recognition, love, and action" (239). Although he criticises other writers for "reductionism" in analysing texts or "relativism" in providing new interpretations, he freely adopts these approaches himself when they suit. For example, the "problematic of Gems of Mysteries" [Javáhiru'l-Asrár] is "the historicization of the spiritual journey" (65), and Saiedi boldly claims that the "entire structure of the Seven Valleys and the Four Valleys can be understood as the dialectic of negation and affirmation" (102). Saiedi's interpretation of the inheritance laws of the Aqdas appears to be relativist: Bahá'u'lláh's purpose, Saiedi states, "is not primarily to establish a particular law of passing on material possessions but to emphasize the symbolic meaning of the numbers themselves" (271). Implicit in this approach is Saiedi's rejection of all other endeavours in Bahá'í studies: un-named writers are collectively called "Bahá'í scholars" who all subscribe to a single flawed "Middle East Studies approach" (42).
His work is an island in a sea of confusion.
Saiedi asserts that Bahá'u'lláh's writings cannot be understood without knowledge of the "conscious intention" of their author (256). This is problematic for two reasons: firstly, Bahá'u'lláh states that his words have multiple meanings and, secondly, how can we know exactly what Bahá'u'lláh intended? Such problems are exemplified in some of Saiedi's own interpretations. How, for example, do we know the "conscious intention" of Bahá'u'lláh in revealing the inheritance laws was a symbolic numerology? One corollary of the methodology proposed by Saiedi would be humility and caution in the interpretation of texts, but Saiedi lacks any tentativeness. We are told what the "primary object of the Four Valleys" is (80), what Bahá'u'lláh "is saying" (24), and that the "reason" Bahá'u'lláh refutes the specific objections of Mírzá Mihdí Rashtí "is simply due to His compassion, as well as the spiritual state of His audience" (181). Apparently, that Bahá'u'lláh altered some laws in the Aqdas "can only imply their binding authority and that those of His laws that He did not change remain absolutely binding" (223). But Saiedi's hermeneutics necessitates evidence in support of these interpretations with the "conscious intention" of Bahá'u'lláh. The problem is that the history of religion shows that individuals, particularly clergy, have tried to limit the interpretation of texts as a pretence to impose their own interpretations on their co-religionists. Discussion of these implications and the possible problems of Saiedi's hermeneutics would have, therefore, been appropriate.
Saiedi's selective citation of previous relevant academic work is problematic.
It is inappropriate for a scholarly book not to mention, let alone build on the
work of others. For example, there is no mention of Christopher Buck's work on
the dating or theology of the Kitáb-i Iqán
in Saiedi's discussion
of it (113-174), no mention of Stephen Lambden's study of the Seven Valleys
in Saiedi's chapters on this work (17-51 and 79-110), and no mention of relevant
work by Todd Lawson
or Moojan Momen whatsoever.
Even Saiedi's discussion
of the term "manifestation" appears in splendid isolation (163-4). Maybe Saiedi
thinks that these previous works are unworthy of mention, but this does not prevent
him citing two obscure "publications" on the internet by John Walbridge and Tony
Lee when criticising their ideas about the structure and limited applicability
of some of the laws of the Kitáb-i Aqdas (236, 216). But it is not just
contemporary scholarship that is ignored or criticised. Saiedi disapproves of
the "limiting premise" of what he coins the "traditional approach" of some early
Iranian Bahá'ís whose scholarship, he believes, was so "dominated
by Iranian, Islamic and Middle Eastern cultural perspectives," that it failed
to "pay attention to the complexity and universality of Bahá'u'lláh's
revelation" and was often "preoccupied and defined" by Islamic issues (42). This
broad sweep of criticism may strike readers as ungenerous.
An area where Logos and Civilization disappoints is its analysis of the Seven Valleys, in particular Saiedi's reading of `Attar's Mantiq al-Tayr (Conference of the Birds). We are told that by adapting `Attar's terminology, Bahá'u'lláh has "revived interest in `Attar's magnificent poetry of mystical stations" (25), although we are not informed when (if ever) such interest died. Saiedi's reductive reading of Iranian literature is highlighted when he argues that the mere fact that Bahá'u'lláh has chosen to use `Attar's terms as vehicles for his revelation "is a testimony to the beauty and spiritual depth of `Attar's poetry" (23) which "implies His approval" (89). Saiedi is also anxious to point out Bahá'u'lláh's "economical and beautiful" style in contrast to `Attar's use of "lengthy illustrative tales" that "tend to overwhelm the unity and continuity of the text" (89). Surely it is natural that the Seven Valleys, which is only drawing on one section of the Mantiq al-Tayr, should be more concise? Saiedi is keen to emphasise what he sees as the qualitative differences between the two texts (23 and 89), but fails to discuss one of the essential points of divergence: the Mantiq al-Tayr is verse whereas the body of the Seven Valleys is prose. One of the differences Saiedi identifies is that the beloveds in the Seven Valleys are female (89), ignoring Jacob's love for the lost Joseph as a story of male/male love in Bahá'u'lláh's work. Furthermore, it is notable that Saiedi's bibliography only contains English translations of works by Ibn `Arabí, `Attar and al-Fárábí.
One author that Saiedi does cite is Juan Cole, and he devotes the last two chapters
to criticizing Cole's ideas as presented on the internet and in his book, Modernity
and the Millennium.
The Saiedi that co-authored a well-known (but overly speculative)
paper with Cole and a few others in the 1980s calling for women to be included
in the membership of the Universal House of Justice seems distant. Logos
corrects some of the "mistakes" and "inaccuracies" in Cole's
translations of Bahá'ís texts (e.g. 344), and consequently questions
the thesis proposed by Cole that Bahá'u'lláh's ideas were adapted
opportunistically to appeal to western audiences. One example is the translation
of "`aql" that Cole proposes should be "reason" while Saiedi argues for "wisdom"
in accordance with Shoghi Effendi (338-9). This is a useful beginning to the discussion
of these themes, though some of this material has already been published.
discussion of Bahá'ís teachings on the relationship between church
and state seems somewhat unclear with Saiedi mainly arguing that the Bahá'ís
view transcends any simple dichotomy between secularism and theocracy, and concluding
that citizens "can only be safeguarded through the collective institutionalization
of respect for religion and spiritual orientation" (365)—although further
clarification of the meaning of this perspective would have been helpful.
Transliteration is another area where the book runs into difficulties. Saiedi
often transliterates Arabic terms according to the way in which they are pronounced
in Persian, e.g. Ibn `Arabi's wahdat al-wujúd
is transliterated vahdatu'l-vujúd
(18 and 70). Occasionally, Arabic terms are transliterated twice, e.g. wahy (vahy)
(35), or else mixed randomly with Persian terms, e.g. sharí`ah
(19). Saiedi fails to provide a note on his transliteration system—a
must in any scholarly publication. Although, Saiedi expresses his gratitude, in
the preface, to the Association for Bahá'ís Studies—North America
for publishing this book, it is actually published by the University Press of
Maryland. The reader may be surprised to learn that this is not a university publisher
(it is a private press, which has previously published Suheil Bushrui's Style
of the Aqdas
with the aid of a donation).
Saiedi's style is, at times, difficult. Although there is no explanation of the
intended audience, it becomes clear that his reverential tone is not appropriate
for a non-Bahá'í readership. Saiedi talks about the "treasury of
Bahá'u'lláh's revelation" (2), of how "the ocean of divine utterance
billows" (145), of the "depth of His [Bahá'u'lláh's] ocean of knowledge"
(196), and how Bahá'u'lláh's response destroyed an opponent's argument
Alike the waves of an ocean erasing a hill of sand" (197). We read about the "unequivocal
authenticity" of Bahá'u'lláh's writings (6) and Bahá'u'lláh's
"authorized interpreters" (214) without explanation of these terms. Occasionally
it appears that the book is not appropriate to those unfamiliar with a sociologist's
turn of phrase. Some examples follow, but the book has many similar sentences:
"the unity of the two concepts of transcendence and history implies the unity
and harmony of a dynamic instrumental and practical/moral rationalization process"
(46); "the details of the creative process then become realized through the final
three stages, which represent permission for actualization, determination of duration,
and registration of all the details pertaining to the particular being or event"
(56); "The solution to this antinomy is precisely the mediating synthesis of the
two" (78); "The kingdom of the heart becomes a thesis opposed to the antithesis
of the kingdom of the earth" (368-9). The "logic" of things is important for Saiedi,
although it is not entirely clear what using this word adds. We have the Anew
logic of Bahá'u'lláh's early writings" (40), the "logic of ideas"
(47), "the poetic logic" (81), the "logic of spiritual journey" (96), the "logic
of desire" (101), the "logic of Bahá'u'lláh's hermeneutics" (152),
"unified holistic logic" (152), "the logic of Bahá'u'lláh's style
of revelation" (236), "the logic of the pure heart" (239), the "logic of consumerism"
(358) and, interestingly, "the romantic logic of space" (91). The use of long
quotes, such as a three-page quote in one chapter (244) and a 12-page quote elsewhere
(340-342), also limits the accessibility of the book.
Overall, this book deserves praise for its ambitious scope and for the new material
it brings to the attention of English-speaking readers, but it suffers from being
too reductive and too narrow in its analysis; problems in the work of others that
Saiedi had set to redress in writing this book. Logos and Civilization
is an apologetic, yet it lacks the methodological rigour of Making the Crooked
that builds on previous Bahá'í scholarship,
or the accessibility of Douglas Martin's "The Missionary as Historian,"
written in an economical and crisp style. It demonstrates, perhaps without the
conscious intention of its author, that scholarship needs an intellectual context
to be meaningful.
- There are, of course, many methodologies in Middle Eastern studies.
- C. Buck, Symbol and Secret: Qur'an Commentary in Bahá'u'lláh's Kitáb-i Iqán (Los Angeles: Kalimat, 1995).
- S. Lambden, "The Seven Valleys of Bahá'u'lláh: a provisional translation with occasional notes," Bahá'í Studies Bulletin 6.2/3 (1992): 26-73.
- Cf. e.g. B. T. Lawson, The Qur'an commentary of Sayyid Ali Muhammad Shirazi, the Báb, Ph. D. thesis, McGill, 1987.
- Cf. e.g. M. Momen, "Relativism: a basis for Bahá'í metaphysics," in Studies in Honor of the late Hasan M. Balyuzi, ed. M. Momen (Los Angeles: Kalimat 1988).
- "The Service of Women on the Universal House of Justice," Documents in Shayki, Babi and Bahá'í History 3 (1998), www.h-net.msu.edu/~bahai/docs/vol3/wmnuhj.htm
- In Payam-i-Bahá'í and Journal of Bahá'í Studies.
- See review in Bahá'í Studies Review 6 (1996): 93-96.
- Udo Schaefer/Nicola Towfigh/Ulrich Gollmer, Making the Crooked Straight. A Contribution to Bahá'í Apologetics (Oxford: George Ronald, 2000).
- Bahá'í Studies 4 (1978): 1-29.