Gate of the Heart: Understanding the Writings of the Báb (Bahá'í Studies Series, vol. 1)
Author: Nader Saiedi
Publisher: Waterloo, ON: Wilfrid Laurier Press, 2008, 423 pp.
Review by: Stephen Lambden
Since the Victorian era of the great Western Islamicists and Orientalists, very few modern academics have been bold enough to write about the life and writings of Sayyid 'Ali Muhammad Shirazi (1819-50 C.E.), the early Qajar-era, Persian-born, messianic claimant widely known as the Bab or 'Gate' (primarily to the occulted twelfth Imam). Even fewer have attempted to translate his numerous, notoriously complex Arabic and Persian writings, the knowledge of which is indispensable to a proper comprehension of the short-lived religion that he founded in 1260/1844. The Bab was executed by a firing squad in Tabriz in 1850, but within a few years his post-Islamic religion was resurrected in a new form by Mirza Husayn 'Ali Nuri (1817-92), the founder of the now globally diffused Bahá'í religion.
Aside from the Persian Bayan and a few other writings, the corpus of the Bab for the most part remains unedited, unpublished, unstudied, and little understood. As early as 1865, with the aid of Persian assistants, the French writer and diplomat Joseph A. Comte de Gobineau (d. 1888) managed to produce a tolerable (yet wrongly titled) French translation of the Arabic Bayan of the Bab, the "Ketab al-Hukkam" [sic]. Forty years later, another sympathetic French consular official and Persianist, Louise (A. L. M.) Nicholas (d. 1939), translated the same work along with its longer Persian counterpart and a few other writings of the Bab. The great Cambridge scholar Edward G. Browne (d. 1926) wrote much about Babi history, bibliography, and factionalism, but translated and analyzed only a few items of his challenging literary output.
During the 1980s and 1990s, a few Western-trained academics, including Denis MacEoin (UK), Abbas Amanat (USA), and Todd Lawson (Canada), published important books and articles in the emergent field of Babi studies. In 1992 MacEoin, a pioneer of Babi studies, published his ground-breaking and indispensable The Sources for Early Babi Doctrine and History, which has recently been supplemented by many more of his collected papers in the massive volume The Messiah of Shiraz (Brill, 2009).
The over four hundred page book reviewed here stands as the first in a new Canadian Wilfrid Laurier University Press Bahá'í Studies Series. It contains a short preface and longer introduction (pp. 1-28) in which Nader Saiedi, a professor of sociology at Carleton College (in Northfield. Minn.), introduces the person and writings of the Bab. In introducing himself and his subject, Saiedi makes it perfectly clear that his book is essentially a work of Bahá'í apologetics. The author, for example, views the Bab primarily as a forerunner to Bahá'u'lláh and the Bahá'í religion. His book thus attempts to make the messianic person of the Bab and his writings meaningful to contemporary Bahá'ís. Gate of the Heart reflects a strong faith-rooted agenda and often dismisses the past century or so of foundational academic scholarship on the religion of the Bab (very summarily and inadequately sketched above).
In his introduction Saiedi divides the writings of the Bab into the following three broad categories or stages: (1) "the interpretive mode of revelation" (1844-early 1846), (2) the philosophical stage involving "an elaborate explanation of the metaphysics of being and creation" (p. 27), and (3) the "new legislative stage." One cannot easily agree with this often overlapping characterization of revelatory stages. Too many works fail to fit into this schemata, including, for example, the early Khutba fi l-Jidda (Sermon at Jeddah) (1845) and the important apologetic treatise of the Bab entitled Risala fi'l-nubuwwa al-khassa (Treatise on the Specific Prophethood [of Muhammad]) (1846-7), not to mention the nine lost Qur'an commentaries written from Maku (1847-8).
Following the introduction. Gate of the Heart contains an annotated "Short Chronological List of the Bab's Writings" (pp. 29-36). There are some new and useful observations, though extant primary sources are only partially listed and sometimes erroneously transliterated on the basis of a paradigm a century or more old, which is out of line with most contemporary academic transliteration norms. Though the Bab's writings are almost all in Arabic, they are often given an idiosyncratic, highly Persianized transliteration, e.g., Tafsir-i-Suriy-i-Yusuf (for Tafsir sura Yusuf); Tafsir-i-Suriy-i-Kawthar (for Tafsir surat al-kawthar); Sahifiy-i-A'mal-i-Sanih (for Sahifa a'mal al-sana). Among transliteration errors is the incorrect title (with key pronominal suffixes omitted) of one of the well-known Islamic extensions of the delphic maxim upon which the Bab commented in his Tafsir man 'arafa nafsahu fa-qad 'arafa rabbahu (pp. 409, 418). The controversial Wasiyyat-nama (Will and Testament) of the Bab is either unsourced or only reluctantly registered (see p. 344 and p. 403 n. 4). In fact, the sourcing of mss. of certain writings of the Bab is inadequate, especially when the reader is simply referred to an unidentified majmu'a presumably held at the Bahá'í World Centre library and currently unavailable to most academics.
Gate of the Heart contains three parts. The first. "The Interpretive Revelation" (pp. 39-159), has the following subdivisions: (1) The Mode of Interpretation; (2) The Divine Chemistry of Fire, Water, Air, and Earth; (3) The Remembrance, the Gate, and the Dust; (4) The Structure of the Qayyumu'l-Asma'; and (5) The Qayyumu'l-Asma' as Interpretation.
Part two is entitled "The Metaphysics of the Primal Will and Divine Action" (pp. 163-236) and has the following four subdivisions: (6) The Sanctuary of the Heart and the Path to Truth; (7) The Primal Will as the Unity of Subject and Object; (8) The Stages of Divine Creative Action; and (9) The Epistle of Justice and the Root Principles of Religion.
The final part three is entitled "The Primal Point and Progressive Revelation" (pp. 239-375) and comprises the following five subdivisions: (10) Resurrection and Historical Consciousness; (11) History and the Perspective of Unity; (12) Community and the Primal Unity; (13) Ethics and Laws in the Bayan; and (14) The Law of the Sword and the Twin Revelations.
In Gate of the Heart Saiedi introduces and comments upon a good many of the Bab's writings, but only a few observations can be registered here, largely pertinent to certain of his statements about the Qayyum al-asma' (henceforth, QA), the first major post-revelation writing of the Bab (written May-June 1844). These are sometimes hard to accept, including his simplistic view that the QA "interprets various verses" of Qur'an 12 (Surat Yusuf) in terms of "the principle of progressive revelation, disclosing both the station of the Bab and Bahá'u'lláh" (p. 30). There is much in the QA that is neo-Qur'anic and has little to do with the Joseph story, its Babi-Bahá'í interpretations, or with the concept of ongoing or "progressive revelation."
For Saiedi, the QA is very much a proto-Bahá'í phenomenon. Such a perspective leads him to play down the jihad element in the QA and other writings of the Bab. Saiedi has it that the opening, eschatological Surat al-Mulk (= QA 1), which calls upon kings to assist him "through themselves (anfus) and their swords (asyaf)," is best interpreted in the light of the general mulk (sovereignty) accorded Joseph in Qur'an 12:101 (seep. 142). The Bab's own interpretation of this verse in Surat al-Qital (= QA 102), however, has a context and emphasis that is clearly jihad-related or centered on the militaristic actualization of mulk as the eschatological sovereignty of God. Though Saiedi is right to emphasize the complementary peaceful elements in the Bab's writings, he all but eclipses the Bab's ongoing references to latter-day jihad even if he never called for its concrete realization. While addressing Babis and announcing his prophetic mission in Baghdad in May 1863, Bahá'u'lláh straightaway dissociated his emergent Bahá'í religion from the use of the sword. His eldest son 'Abd al-Baha' (d. 1921) subsequently had occasion to complain about the violent, militaristic elements in the writings of the Bab (see Makatib-i hadrat-i 'Abd al-Baha', 2: 266)
One is surprised when Saiedi depicts the great Cambridge scholar Edward G. Browne whose "A Summary of the Persian Bayan" (ca. 1888) and other sporadic translations remain extremely valuable as one who "attempted, very inadequately, to translate some texts [of the Bab] into English" (p. 380 n. 43). Indeed, translations in Gate of the Heart themselves are not always particularly solid, an example being the overdone rendering of [ard] al-'ama' (lit. "domain [land] of the [Divine] Cloud") in QA 18 (= Surat al-Sirat) as "the land of the Supreme Cloud of Subtlety" (p. 149). This translation using the word "subtlety" (latif) appears to incorporate an aspect of 'Abd al-Baha's comments on the meaning of 'ama' cited by Mirza Muhammad Fadil Mazandarani in his Asrar al-athar (4: 394), though this exegetical note was hardly intended to expound all of the complex senses of 'ama' registered in the QA and elsewhere. More relevant in this connection are the Bab's own interpretations of 'ama' in his Tafsir hadith al-'ama' (written for Sayyid Yahya Darabi, Vahid; Tehran Bahá'í Archives ms. 6007C, pp. 1-16; cf. also the Rashh-i 'ama' of Bahá'u'lláh). In this commentary by the Bab, 'ama' is identified with Allah and His nafs (Persona) and associated with the locus of His Being and outward Prophethood.
Like his earlier, markedly anti-academic Logos and Civilization; Spirit, History, and Order in the Writings of Bahá'u'lláh (2000), Saiedi in this book is especially critical of Browne and MacEoin. He tends to misread certain of MacEoin's perspectives and dismisses his work despite the fact that he is often directly or indirectly dependent upon it (end of p. 36, item 6). In spite of this, Saiedi does legitimately modify a number of MacEoin's tentative positions, including his stance respecting the time of the completion of the Qayvum al-asma' (p. 30). MacEoin's speculations regarding the relationship of the Kitab al-Fihrist, the Khutba dhikriyya, and the risala dhahabiyya are also dealt with in an insightful way (see esp. p. 379 n. 35).
It is often hard to see how, as the author claims, Gate of the Heart constitutes "a new approach to the writings of the Bab" (p, 2), unless one agrees that past academic approaches are all but "literalistic" misunderstandings born out of a view that Babi sacred writings are of purely "archaeological" interest (p. 3). When used with caution, despite its limitations, Gate of the Heart will doubtless be much appreciated by those seeking an introduction to the life and writings of the Bab, the Sayyid of Shiraz, who gave his life in promoting a new sacred book and a new religious law for the revolutionary transformation of humankind. In this way it is a worthwhile volume that contributes significantly to the neglected field of Babi-Bahá'í studies.