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Abstract:
Islamic contributions to Western culture and science and discusses the place of Islamic Studies in the Baha'i Faith.

Islam, Muhammad, and the Qur'an:
Some Introductory Notes

by Stephen Lambden

published in Bahá'í Studies Review, 1:1
London: Association for Baha'i Studies English-Speaking Europe, 1991
The spirit of Islám, no doubt, was the living germ of modern Civilization; which derived its impetus from the Islamic culture in the Middle Ages, a culture that was the fruit of the Faith of Muhammad. (From a letter written on behalf of Shoghi Effendi to an individual believer dated July 30, 1941 published in Lights of Guidance 1665)

... Muhammadanism [Islám] is not only the last of the world religions, but a fuller Revelation than any one preceding it. The Qur'án is not only more authoritative than any previous religious gospel, but it contains also many more ordinances, teachings and precepts, which taken together constitute a fuller Revelation of God's purpose and law to mankind than Christianity, Judaism or any other previous Dispensation. This view is in complete accord with the Bahá'í philosophy of progressive revelation, and should be thoroughly accepted and taught by every loyal Christian Bahá'í. (From a letter written on behalf of the Guardian to an individual believer dated November 12, 1933 published in Lights of Guidance 1670)

The Bahá'í Faith has its most central roots in Islám. The twin Manifestations of this age, the Báb and Bahá'u'lláh, were born Muslims in an Islamic society. They spoke Persian – one of the major languages of Islám – and revealed countless verses in Arabic, the language of the Holy Qur'án and the most important language of Islamic civilization. The Báb and Bahá'u'lláh frequently quoted the Qur'án. Thousands of God's Revelations to them are permeated with Qur'ánic language and style. The Arabic language was highly elevated by them. Along with Persian it is one of the twin Bábí-Bahá'í languages of revelation. The first major revelation of the Báb, the Commentary on the [Qur'ánic] Sura of Joseph,[1] referred to by Bahá'u'lláh in His Book of Certitude (Kitáb-i-íqán) as ". . . the first, the greatest, the mightiest of all books" (231) is in the Arabic language. So too is Bahá'u'lláh's mightiest Book, the Most Holy Book (al-Kitáb al-Aqdas; c.1873). Many other texts, including all but one of the 'Tablets to the Kings' – that to the Persian Násir al-Dín Sháh which is largely but not wholly in Persian – are also in Arabic.

The Christian Bible is very largely in two languages:

    1) [The] Hebrew [Bible ='Old Testament']: a Semitic language and
    2) [The] Greek ['New Testament']: an Indo-European language.

The twin languages of the Bahá'í revelation are likewise in a Semitic (Arabic) and an Indo-European (Persian) language. In a certain sense this parallels Christian scripture although the Bahá'í 'Bible'[2] derives directly from the Manifestation(s) of God. The Arabic and Persian languages are regarded as equally important vehicles of Divine Revelation. A large number of Bahá'u'lláh's Tablets are in a mixture of Arabic and Persian. Some of the interpretive Tablets of 'Abdu'l-Bahá are, furthermore, in Turkish: a third major Islamic language.

It is presupposed in a good many passages within Bahá'í Scripture and in a multitude of the letters of Shoghi Effendi that it is a religious duty of Bahá'ís to study the Qur'án and Islám. This study in fact should not only facilitate the true appreciation of the grandeur of Islám and the greatness of its Holy Scripture but also greatly aid the understanding of many important Bahá'í doctrines and practices. For Bahá'í deepening in certain areas, knowledge of the Qur'án and Islám is indispensable.

In certain respects it is true to say that the Bahá'í Faith is neo-Islamic. Such doctrines, for example, as the Oneness of God (tawhíd), 'Progressive Revelation' and the notion of the 'Greatest Name' (al-ism al-a'zam) are obviously Islamic. The centrality of prayer, fasting and pilgrimage in the Bahá'í Faith is largely the result of its Islamic-Bábí background. Having made this point however, it should not be forgotten that many detailed Bábí-Bahá'í aspects of these religious practices are radically different from Islamic norms.

Whether they be from the Orient or from the Occident, Bahá'ís should fully recognize and strive to appreciate the sublime greatness of Muhammad. The Arabian Prophet was not an ordinary or merely exceptional man: he was a Manifestation of God with all that that implies. Bahá'ís need not lower Muhammad in order to elevate Bahá'u'lláh. They need not lessen their love for Jesus Christ in order to recognise the divine magnitude of Muhammad. To denigrate Islamic doctrines or practices in order to highlight the modernity of Bahá'í teachings is largely mistaken and can create prejudicial attitudes. All aspects of Islamic studies should be beloved of Bahá'ís. As Christians study and revere Judaism and the Hebrew Bible ['Old Testament'] so likewise should Bahá'ís study and revere Islám and the Holy Qur'án.

When the Bábí-Bahá'í religions come to be attacked in the West by freethinkers and Christians, there will undoubtedly be a recrudescence of anti-Islamic sentiments. Fundamentalist Christians who have a false or an unbalanced view of Islám and its Prophet – as 'satanic' – will attempt to weaken the faith of Bahá'ís from a Christian background by repeating age-old Occidental prejudices. The Islamic aspects or background of the Bahá'í Faith will be attacked. In maintaining faith and countering such prejudicial arguments Bahá'ís will need to have an appreciation of Islám and an understanding of its true history and teachings.

Bahá'ís should love Muslims; they should love all human beings whatever their cultural, religious or geographical background. It should always be remembered by Bahá'ís that many Muslims are and have been wonderful and religiously devout human beings. This loving and friendly attitude is not altered by the sad history of the Bahá'í persecutions – which have no relationship to true Islám. What a distortion of the Bahá'í Faith it would be if it became anti-Islamic! Negative views of Islám have no place in the Bahá'í world. There should be nothing paralleling that engrained anti-Semitism which became a foul distortion of the spirit of Christendom. Bahá'ís should neither fear nor despise Muslims. Although Western Bahá'ís are not presently engaged in attempting to convert or directly teach Muslims, they should always treat them lovingly and respect their religion.

It is obvious that Bahá'ís should exert themselves to bring the world to a recognition of the glory of Bahá'u'lláh. Less well known is the fact that Shoghi Effendi gave Bahá'ís the secondary task of enabling Westerners to understand and appreciate Islám.

Islám

The word (verbal-noun) Islám occurs eight times in the Qur'án. It signifies the Religion which God eternally and from age to age communicates to man.[3] All past religions have been expressions of Islám. According to the Qur'án, Abraham declared himself a Muslim[4] as did the apostles of Jesus.[5] In a sense the Bahá'í Faith is a contemporary expression of Islám. It is the latest expression of the 'progressive revelation' of the Divine Providence or God's unfolding purpose. The Bábí and Bahá'í Faiths supersede and fulfil historical Islám but carry forward the eternal "Islám" of God.

The Arabic words Islám and Muslim are closely related. They both derive from the Arabic triliteral root S.L.M. which connotes "to submit/surrender ['to the Will of God']".[6] Hence, Islám signifies "Surrender" or "Submission" to the Will of God. The word Muslim is an Arabic active participle. It indicates one who "actively submits" to the Will of God as it is expressed in Islám. From the Bahá'í point of view the true Muslim is one who humbly submits before or accepts the Manifestation of God Who is the locus and mediator of the Will of God. A person becomes a Muslim by uttering the formula "There is none other god but God (alláh)"; by submitting to the truth of theism/monotheism as communicated by the Prophet Muhammad. For Bahá'ís today the utterance of this testimony (the shahada) signifies, among other things, the confession of the essential oneness of the Divine Manifestations of God.[7] Both the Báb and Bahá'u'lláh wrote a very great deal about the mystical and symbolic import of this Arabic twelve letter confession of Faith.

ALL?H is the main Arabic word for God. It is the second component of the title Bahá'u'lláh – the supreme Manifestation of God and Founder of the Bahá'í Faith. Theologically, Bahá'u'lláh is the "Greatest Name" of God. Linguistically it is a genitive expression: i.e. Bahá' + Allah = 'the Glory of God'. Alláh[8] is mentioned hundreds of times in the Qur'án. It is a way of referring to God which is not linguistically alien to the Bible. More than ten different words for God occur in the Hebrew Bible. Among them are the Divine designations 'EL, 'ELOAH, and 'ELOHIM: the latter a feminine plural with singular significance and the first word for God in the TORAH.[9] The word ALL?H[10] and these latter Hebrew designations for the Divinity are linguistically related and essentially synonymous. The Muslim God and the God of the Bible are not different Deities. The One Ultimate Godhead has diverse Names and is worshipped in diverse ways by several billion religionists. It is the result of ignorance and prejudice that some western Europeans imagine that the word ALL?H is the false name of a false God.

Muhammad and the Qur'án

The Prophet Muhammad was born in Mecca in about 570 C.E. He was the posthumous son of 'Abd Alláh b. 'Abd al-Muttalib (an important Meccan leader) and ámina b. Wahb. Tradition has it that it was while He was meditating on Mt. Hira in the year 610 C.E. He was summoned by the angel Gabriel with the opening words of Súra 96 of the Qur'án : "Recite![11] in the name of your Lord. . ." Despite considerable persecution over the next 22 years He revealed the Qur'án[12] which is made up of over 6,000 Arabic verses collected together and committed to writing shortly after Muhammad's death in the year 632 C.E.

Inasmuch as Muhammad sealed or came at the end of the Adamic or Prophetic cycle[13] He is entitled the "Seal of the Prophets (kh átam al-nabbiyín)" in the Qur'án.[14] Like certain other Manifestations of God, He is referred to in the Qur'án, as both a Prophet (nabí) and a Messenger (rasúl). As the Báb and Bahá'u'lláh represent the coming of "God" on the "Day of God", the term "Seal of the Prophets" in no way precludes their manifestation. Rather, it highlights the greatness of the Arabian Prophet and indicates the magnitude of the Bahá'í Dispensation.

The Arabic word Qur'án denotes the book which constitutes the "Word of God" for Muslims or Islamic Scripture cf. the Arabic word Bayan which means "Exposition" and is a Bábí term signifying (among other things) the totality of the Báb's revelations. Both Muslims and Bahá'ís consider the Qur'án to be the pristine "Word of God", communicated by the Prophet Muhammad on behalf of God Who is its actual Author. Muslims do not say "Muhammad said in the Qur'án . . ." but "God, exalted be He, revealed in the Qur'án. . . (or the like)". Great emphasis is laid in Bahá'í texts on the study of the Qur'án.

A Latin paraphrase of the Qur'án was completed by Robertus Ketenesis at the behest of Peter the Venerable in 1143 C.E. It has many times been directly or indirectly translated into modern European languages; into Italian for example, by Andrea Arrivabene (1647>) and English by Alexander Ross (1649). Among the more than 40 complete English translations of the Qur'án, Shoghi Effendi recommended those made directly from the Arabic by George Sale (1734; many reprints, even translated back into Arabic by Protestant missionaries in Egypt) and Rev. J.M. Rodwell (1861; also frequently reprinted). In 1938 the Guardian spoke very highly of Sale's translation referring to it as "the most accurate rendering available" (Directives 170) and subsequently as "an admirable translation" (Directives 172). Since Shoghi Effendi's recommendation of the once widely available translation of Sale (not now in print) another superb and widely academically respected translation was made (in 1955; many reprints and currently available) by A.J. Arberry. As far as English translations of the Qur'án go this version has (with others) been used by Hanna E. Kassis to frame an excellent English Concordance of the Qur'án.[15] The later volume provides an excellent thematic basis for English language Qur'ánic study: a method of study recom-mended by Shoghi Effendi (see below).

Islám: Some Selected Letters of Shoghi Effendi

Shoghi Effendi hopes that your lectures will not only serve to deepen the knowledge of the believers in the doctrines and culture of Islám, but will set their hearts afire with the love of everything that vitally pertains to Muhammad and His Faith.

    There is so [much] misunderstanding about Islám in the West in general that you have to dispel. Your task is rather difficult and requires a good deal of erudition. Your chief task is to acquaint the friends with the pure teachings of the Prophet as recorded in the Qur'án, and then to point out how these teachings have, throughout succeeding ages, influenced nay guided the course of human development. In other words you have to show the position and significance of Islám in the history of civilization.

    The Bahá'í view on that subject is that the Dispensation of Muhammad, like all other Divine Dispensations, has been fore-ordained, and that as such forms an integral part of the Divine Plan for the spiritual, moral and social development of mankind. It is not an isolated religious phenomenon, but is closely and historically related to the Dispensation of Christ, and those of the Báb and Bahá'u'lláh. It was intended by God to succeed Christianity and it was therefore the duty of the Christians to accept it as firmly as they had adhered to the religion of Christ.

    You should also cautiously emphasize the truth that due to the historical order of its appearance, and also because of the obviously more advanced character of its teachings, Islám constitutes a fuller revelation of God's purpose for mankind. The so-called Christian civilization of which the Renaissance is one of the most striking manifestations is essentially Muslim in its origins and foundations. When medieval Europe was plunged in darkest barbarism, the Arabs regenerated and transformed by the spirit released by the religion of Muhammad, were busily engaged in establishing a civilization the kind of which their contemporary Christians in Europe had never witnessed before. It was eventually through Arabs that civilization was introduced to the West. It was through them that the philosophy, science and culture which the old Greeks had developed found their way to Europe. The Arabs were the ablest translators, and linguists of their age, and it is thanks to them that the writings of such well-known thinkers as Socrates, Plato and Aristotle were made available to the Westerners. It is wholly unfair to attribute the efflorescence of European culture during the Renaissance period to the influence of Christianity. It was mainly the product of the forces released by the Muhammadan Dispensation.

    From the standpoint of institutionalism Islám far surpasses true Christianity as we know it in the Gospels. There are infinitely more laws and institutions in the Qur'án than in the Gospel. While the latter's emphasis is mainly, not to say wholly, on individual and personal conduct, the Qur'án stresses the importance of society. This social emphasis acquires added importance and significance in the Bahá'í Revelation. When carefully and impartially compared, the Qur'án marks a definite advancement on the Gospel, from the standpoint of spiritual and humanitarian progress. The truth is that Western historians have for many centuries distorted the facts to suit their religious and ancestral prejudices. The Bahá'ís should try to study history anew, and to base all their investigations first and foremost on the written Scriptures of Islám and Christianity.
(From a letter written on behalf of Shoghi Effendi to an individual believer dated April 27, 1936 published in Lights of Guidance 1664)

The friends should uphold Islám as a revealed Religion in teaching the Cause but need not make, at present, any particular attempt to teach it solely and directly to non-Bahá'ís at this time.

    The mission of the American Bahá'ís is, no doubt, to eventually establish the truth of Islám in the West.

    The spirit of Islám, no doubt, was the living germ of modern Civilization; which derived its impetus from the Islamic culture in the Middle Ages, a culture that was the fruit of the Faith of Muhammad.
(From a letter written on behalf of Shoghi Effendi to an individual believer dated July 30, 1941 published in Lights of Guidance 1665)

As regards the [Summer School] courses, he would advise you to continue laying emphasis on the history and teachings of Islám, and in particular on the Islamic origins of the Faith.
(From a letter written on behalf of Shoghi Effendi to an individual believer dated October 14, 1936 published in Bahá'í Institutions 95)

... We must remember that every religion sprang from some root, and just as Christianity sprang from Judaism, our own religion sprang from Islám, and that is why so many of the teachings deduce their proofs from Islám.
(From a letter written on behalf of Shoghi Effendi to an individual believer dated March 5, 1957 published in Compilation no. 66)

The Study of the Qur'án

With regard to the school's program (Louhelen) for the next summer; the Guardian would certainly advise, and even urge the friends to make a thorough study of the Qur'án, as the knowledge of this sacred Scripture is absolutely indispensable for every believer who wishes to adequately understand and intelligently read the writings of Bahá'u'lláh. Although there are very few persons among Western Bahá'ís who are capable of handling such a course in a scholarly way, the mere lack of such competent teachers should encourage and stimulate the believers to get better acquainted with the Sacred Scriptures of Islám. In this way, there will gradually appear some distinguished Bahá'ís who will be so well versed in the teachings of Islám as to be able to guide the believers in their study of that religion.(From a letter written on behalf of the Guardian, Directives 171)

It is certainly most difficult to thoroughly grasp all the Surihs [='chapters'] of the Qur'án, as it requires a detailed knowledge of the social, religious and historical background of Arabia at the time of the appearance of the Prophet. The believers cannot possibly hope, therefore, to understand the Surihs after the first or even second or third reading. They have to study them again and again, ponder over their meaning, with the help of certain commentaries, and explanatory notes as found for instance in the admirable translation made by Sale, endeavor to acquire as clear and correct understanding of their meaning and import as possible. This is naturally a slow process, but future generations of believers will certainly come to grasp it. For the present, the Guardian agrees, that it would be easier and more helpful to study the book according to subjects, and not verse by verse and also in the light of Báb, Bahá'u'lláh and 'Abdu'l-Bahá's interpretations which throw such floods of light on the whole of the Qur'án.(From a letter written on behalf of the Guardian to an individual believer dated August 22, 1939 published in Lights of Guidance 1666)

As to the question raised by the Spiritual Assembly of Los Angeles concerning the best English translation of the Qur'án, the Guardian would recommend Sales' translation which is the most accurate rendering available, and is the most widespread.(From a letter written on behalf of the Guardian, Directives 170)

Study Material

Islám attained a very high spiritual state, but western scholars are prone to judging it by Christian standards. One cannot call one world Faith superior to another, as they all come from God; they are progressive, each suited to certain needs of the times.(From a letter written on behalf of the Guardian by his secretary to an individual believer dated November 19, 1945 published in Directives from the Guardian 106 and Lights of Guidance 663)

Shoghi Effendi wrote these words in 1945. In the last few decades however, a good proportion of Western academic Islamicists and religious studies specialists have manifested a commendable degree of empathy and balanced objectivity towards Islám. Certain of them have put forth scholarly tomes which basically support Bahá'í or quasi-Bahá'í perspectives. Two chapters in the excellent volume by Geoffrey Parrinder, Encountering World Religions[16] would form the basis of excellent deepening classes: chapters 8 (Prophet of Islám) and 9 (Koran and Bible). The following list of books is only a very small proportion of useful volumes for study. Some of them are in print. Alternatively, they may be borrowed from public libraries or obtained through inter-library loans. A selected list of Bahá'í materials touching upon Islám can be found by consulting J. Heggie (comp.), Bahá'í References to Judaism, Christianity & Islám.[17]

Islám

Jacques Jomier. How to Understand Islám.[18] A readable and excellent, wide-ranging introduction – ignore the unsatisfactiory few pages headed Bahá'í (pp. 100-101).

W. M. Watt. Islamic Philosophy and Theology[19]; Seyyed Hossein Nasr (Ed.), Islamic Spirituality: Foundations/Manifestations.[20] These volumes contain much that is of interest to Bahá'í students of Islám; the articles within them were largely written from the Shí'í Muslim perspective.

Moojan Momen. An Introduction to Shí'í Islám.[21] An academically very well-received book by a leading Bahá'í scholar.

Marzieh Gail. Six Lessons on Islám.[22]

Heshmat Moayyad (Ed.). The Bahá'í Faith and Islám.[23] A pioneering collection of essays by Bahá'í and non-Bahá'í scholars including some leading academics – not however, particularly comprehensive or drawing very much on the wealth of primary scriptural Bábí-Bahá'í material. The essays are of varying quality and do not cover by any means all aspects of the relationship between the Bahá'í Faith and Islám.

Muhammad

Michael Cook. Muhammad.[24] Fairly easy reading and academically sound.

W. M. Watt. Muhammad Prophet and Statesman.[25] A first class and very readable book.

An excellent and detailed biography of Muhammad based on original [early Arabic] source materials is M. Lings, Muhammad, His Life based on the Earliest Sources.[26]

A particularly brilliant exposition of Muslim views of Muhammad is Anniemarie Schimmel, And Muhammad is His Messenger, The Veneration of the Prophet in Islamic Piety.[27]

Hasan Balyuzi, Muhammad and the Course of Islám.[28] More or less the only English language overview of the life of Muhammad and the historical growth of Islám. Written by a Bahá'i.

The Qur'án

The Bahá'í study of the Qur'án should go hand in hand with the study of important Bahá'í exegetical scripture; such as the Book of Certitude (Kitáb-i-Iqán). A Western Bahá'í booklet devoted to Qur'ánic study is the slight and now quite difficult to obtain Introduction to a Study of The Qur'án.[29] As far as the general study of the Qur'án goes there are today many first class volumes available written by non-Bahá'ís. Academically sound is the W. M. Watt (Rev.) Bell's Introduction to the Qur'án.[30] Certain major commentaries have become [partially] available in English in recent years including the centrally important work of Al-Tabari [d. 924 C.E.], The Commentary on the Qur'án Vol.1.[31] The following volumes contain a useful selection of Muslim Qur'án commentary (tafsir): H. Gatje, [Tr. A. Welch] The Qur'án and its Exegesis;[32] M. Ayoub, The Qur'án and its Interpreters Vol.1.[33]


End Notes
  1. 'chapter' 12 of the Qur'án, Tafsír Súra yúsuf; mid. 1844.
  2. literally 'a collection of books'.
  3. Qur'án 3:19.
  4. Qur'án 3:67.
  5. Qur'án 5:111.
  6. in forms II, IV and X (among other things).
  7. cf. Bahá'u'lláh's "Tablet of the City of the Divine Oneness" or [Lawh-i] Madínat al-Tawhíd.
  8. = [the] God.
  9. Genesis 1:1.
  10. very likely a contraction of the [ al-]+ god [masculine, iláh].
  11. "iqra"; cf. Qur'án.
  12. = " the Recitation".
  13. from Adam to Muhammad.
  14. Qur'án 33:46.
  15. University of California Press, 1983.
  16. Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1987. [ISBN O-567-29137-5] [Pbk. £7.95].
  17. Oxford: George Ronald, 1986.
  18. [Tr. from French by John Bowden] London: SCM Press Ltd., 1989. [ISBN 0-334-02070-0] [Pbk. £6.95].
  19. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1979. [ISBN 0-85224-358-8].
  20. 2 Vols. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1987/1990.
  21. Oxford: George Ronald, 1986.
  22. Wilmette: Bahá'í Publishing Committee, 1953; and Wilmette: Bahá'í Publishing Trust, 1969/73 [now out of print].
  23. Ottowa: Association for Bahá'í Studies, 1990.
  24. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1983. [ISBN 0-19-287605-8] (Past Master's Series).
  25. London: Oxford University Press, 1961/78. [ISBN 0-19-881078-4].
  26. London: Unwin Paperbacks, 1988. [ISBN 0-04-297050-4].
  27. Chapel Hill & London: The University of N. Carolina Press, 1985. [ISBN 0-8078-4128-5].
  28. Oxford: George Ronald, 1976.
  29. Wilmette: Bahá'í Publishing Trust, 1941/ 1964.
  30. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1977. [ISBN 0-85224-335-9].
  31. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1987. [ISBN 0-19–9201-42-0].
  32. London & Henley: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1971.
  33. Albany: SUNY, 1984. [ISBN 0-87395-727-X].


Works Cited
  • Bahá'í Institutions: a Compilation. New Delhi: Bahá'í Publishing Trust, 1973.

  • Bahá'u'lláh. Kitáb-i-Iqán: The Book of Certitude. Trans. Shoghi Effendi. Wilmette: Bahá'í Publishing Trust, 1983.
  • The Compilation of Compilations prepared by the Universal House of Justice 1963-1990, v. 1. Australia: Bahá'í Publications Australia, 1991
  • Directives from the Guardian. Comp. Gertrude Garrida, New Delhi: Bahá'í Publishing Trust, 1973.
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