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Abstract:
Review of the book, expanded into an essay on the Bab's ethics, laws, and use of symbolism.
Notes:
Mirrored with permission from jack-mclean.com.

Gate of the Heart: Understanding the Writings of the Báb, by Nader Saiedi:
Review

by Jack McLean

2009
Review of: Gate of the Heart: Understanding the Writings of the Báb
Author: Nader Saiedi
Published by: Wilfrid Laurier Press, 2008
Review by: Jack McLean
Review not published: originally written for World Order, 2009

Assessment of Content, Method and Scope

Nader Saiedi is a professor of sociology at Carleton College in Northfield, Minnesota who made his reputation largely on the basis of Logos and Civilization: Spirit, History, and Order in the Writings of Bahá’u’lláh (University Press of Maryland, 2000). His latest work, Gate of the Heart: Understanding the Writings of the Báb, is an ambitious 423 page, comprehensive, intellectually challenging monograph resulting from several years of meticulous research. The title, Gate of the Heart, like all titles, serves to attract attention and flags the basic meaning or orientation of the book. The gate is, of course, one of the names by which the Báb chose to designate Himself and by which He is best-known. The name “Gate” refers, consequently, to one of the stations and primary functions of the Báb’s mission. But here, instead of acting as the gate for the revelation of Man Yuzhiruhu’lláh, Him Whom God Shall Make Manifest, a phrase that atypically held little meaning for the Shí’ih, the Báb becomes the gate of the heart.

The title serves, then, to put the reader on notice that a different orientation has been taken, one that includes the mystical realm. It also alerts the reader to the fact that the heart is the locus of understanding and must serve any effort to grasp the Báb’s writings at a more profound level. In Chapter Three, “The Remembrance, the Gate, and the Dust”, Saiedi carefully explores several polysemous meanings of this potent word of mediation, some of which are unprecedented in Shí’ih Islam. They include: the Gate to the Hidden Imam, the Gate to the next Manifestation of God, the Gate through which Moses spoke to God, the Gate to the knowledge of God, the Supreme Gate and the End of all Gates. Throughout the book, the Báb is referred to as the Gate to the “sanctuary of the heart.” The Báb’s heart is, so to speak, the heart of God and He dwells in the heart of all believers.

This study is a densely packed introduction to the vast field of the Báb’s writings that will serve both the intelligent reader and the seasoned scholar. However, the intelligent reader, who has no background in Shí’ih Islam and philosophical theology, may find the work challenging, not only because of its pervasive Islamic references, but also because Saiedi’s scholarship is both dense and written at a high level of abstraction, one that verges at times on speculation. In spite of these challenges, Gate will reward the concentrated reader. The scholar of the Báb’s writings should welcome the fund of newly translated passages with their informed commentary on scriptures that have not been made available previously. Saiedi’s analysis remains text-rooted throughout, without being boringly lexicographical.

Outside the cadre of specialized scholars, members of the Bahá’í community have known little about the Báb’s religion. This situation existed mainly for two reasons: (1) the paucity of annotated translations of original sources into English, such as the Persian Bayán, the “Mother Book” of the Báb’s dispensation. (2) the lack of a general, comprehensive analysis of the Báb’s writings, as distinct from the piecemeal studies that already exist. Gate of the Heart helps to fill this gap by providing abundant provisional translations with exegesis of certain key passages found in the major commentaries and works of the Báb. Most importantly, it provides an overview of the Báb’s theophanic vision.

To help sort out the Báb’s vast corpus, Gate provides a handy, short chronological summary list of 27 of His major works. Saiedi perceives three general stages or orientations to these writings which must not be taken as ironclad: Stage 1 (Interpretive), to January 1846; Stage 2 (Philosophical), January 1846-April 1847; Stage 3 (Legislative), April 1847-July 1850. These stages include such works as: Fi’s Sulúk I and II (On the Virtuous/Spiritual Journey), the Epistle of Justice: Branches, Commentary on the Súrih of Joseph, Commentary on the Súrih of the Afternoon, the Tablet to Mírzá Sá’íd, the poet, an important and complex philosophical treatise, the Persian and Arabic Bayán, the Kitábu’l-Asmá’ (Book of Divine Names), and the Kitáb-i-Panj Sh’an (Book of Five Revelation Modes), to name only some of the principal writings. Among these works, the Kitábu’l-Asmá’ deserves special mention as being perhaps the longest known revealed scripture in history — at least 1200 pages.[1]

Unlike Logos and Civilization, Saiedi’s recent book builds on the contributions of other scholars in the field by citing or referring to the English-language articles and books written, inter alia, by Todd Lawson, Stephen Lambden, Abbas Amanat, J. Vahid Brown, Moojan Momen and the controversial Denis MacEoin. One of the attractive features of this 2008 publication is its inclusion of material in Persian by some contemporary Iranian scholars. Included in this group are Muhammad Afnán, Mehri Afnán, Siyamak Zabihi-Moghaddam, Vahid Behmardi, Vahid Ra’fati, Muhammad Husayni, Parviz Moini and ‘Abu’l-Qásim Afnán.

One of the starting points of Saiedi’s research was to counter the popular notion that since the laws of the Bayán were abrogated by Bahá’u’lláh, the obligation no longer exists to study the sacred text.[2] But this study shows that knowledge of these sacred writings enables the reader, not only to better understand the scriptures per se of this short but tumultuous dispensation (1844-1852), but also to perceive the theological and ethical ties that bind together the Bábí-Bahá’í revelations. The best known teaching that indicates the sequential, organic oneness of the two religions, as found in Selections From the Writings of the Báb (1976), is the belief that the whole purpose of the Báb’s dispensation was to prepare the way for Him Whom God Shall Make Manifest. This belief is not mistaken, of course, but it vastly reduces the richness of the Báb’s revelation to a vital singularity.

Saiedi demonstrates that some key teachings of Bahá’u’lláh, such as the equality of women and men, the categorical imperative of believing in God’s current Manifestation (mazhár-i-illáhí), the prophetic designation used by the Báb, dispensational religion, progressive revelation, the oneness of religion, and certain ethical teachings, such as purity and refinement (litáfat), were all anticipated by the Báb, and made explicit later by Bahá’u’lláh, and the authorized interpreter of His writings, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá. Saiedi argues convincingly that the Báb’s harsher ethical prescriptions and ritual laws, found in the Persian and Arabic Bayán, were intended to prepare the way for the revelation of Man Yuzhirhu’lláh by breaking down the obdurate walls of Islamic orthodoxy and orthopraxis. Some of them, he contends, were never intended to be practiced. It is noteworthy that all these severe ritual laws were abrogated by Bahá’u’lláh.

This study presents sets of discrete but interrelated teachings which were little or completely unknown to western readers, except the informed few. This new material adds to the discussion made by other outstanding scholars who have broken the ground. Fundamental questions such as the meaning of the Báb’s name and various titles — Gate, Primal Point, Qá’ím, Primal Will (mashíyyat-i-avvalí) — the station of the Letters of the Living, the meaning of the Joseph story in the Qayyúmu’l-Asmá’, and His reference to Himself as the Dhikru’lláh, “Remembrance of God” are treated.

I open a reviewer parenthesis here. This book is a faith-driven analysis, one that accepts the premise of belief in a divine revelation by a committed believer. But Gate of the Heart is no amateur apologetics. It features philosophical exegesis, deductive logic, knowledge of Shí’ih Islam, and familiarity with the works of selected western philosophers that are correlated to the writings of the Báb. For those critical readers who prefer other methodologies, and who may be tempted to fault the engaged approach as a hindrance to “objective” analysis, these readers can be sure that in Saiedi’s case, the faith of the engaged participant has not meant the death of the observing analyst. In his exegesis, Saiedi explores the Báb’s writings not only systematically but holistically.

While Nader Saiedi may be a professor of sociology, it should be clear by now that he writes like a theologian. His theological approach predates, of course, the emergence of modern, academic studies of religion with their historical-critical, social-scientific, agnostic methodology. Saiedi’s methodology, while it shows a modern and sophisticated face, is as old as scholasticism itself, whether Jewish, Islamic or Christian — as old as St. Anselm of Canterbury’s famous dictum Fides quaerens intellectum (“faith seeking understanding”),[3] and the ancient tradition of scholars who followed that line. I hasten to add that “scholasticism” as applied to Dr. Saiedi’s work is not meant as a term of reproach. It means, rather, a logical method applied to a comprehensive system of thought that may be identified with the norms of the philosophy of Bahá’í society, one that respects reason, prophetic authority and revealed religion.

The Introduction critiques a pervasively secular approach to sociology, Saiedi’s own discipline. He writes that the sociology of religion has degenerated into “sociologism,” an -ism that “...defines religion [only] in terms of its social/cultural dimension and denies the reality of any transcendental/metaphysical aspect” (8). He goes on to say more pointedly: “Some of the greatest sociologists [Auguste Comte, Emile Durkheim, Herbert Spencer] have even turned the sociology of religion itself into an argument for the non-existence of God and the soul” (8-9). However, there are passing references to other eighteenth, nineteenth and twentieth century thinkers such as Kant, Hegel, Freud, Feuerbach, Weber, Rawls, Jung, Kuhn in which the Báb’s ethical maxims or philosophical concepts are presented as an advance over the ethics of these European and American thinkers.

Some concessions are found to Dr. Saiedi’s own field in Part III, where the reader encounters consecutive sections on “Resurrection and Historical Consciousness,” “History and the Perspective of Unity” and “Community and the Primal Unity,” but the approach in these sections remains theological throughout; they are only peripherally sociological. Here one finds a certain sociology of knowledge, but it is one that explores the relationship of the heart, as well as the mind, to the religio-socio-cultural environment. Saiedi’s understanding of the sociology of knowledge, which is based on his understanding of the writings of the Báb, is that the seeker beholds reality or “all things” (kullu shay’) in “the sanctuary of the heart.” This intuitive knowledge is as one of the central precepts of the Báb’s mystical-spiritual epistemology.

The Anticipation of Modernity in the Writings of the Báb

In the twenty-eight page Introduction, Dr. Saiedi makes a point of showing that the Báb’s revelation, not only reforms Islam by restoring it to its pure roots, but also anticipates the excesses of modernity with its antagonistic poles of religious fundamentalism and secular atheism. The Báb abolished a rigid and oppressive Islamic Shari’ah that embodied both fundamentalism (judicial literalism) and traditionalism, while He retained the Shí’ih categories of millenarianism and the renewal of charismatic authority as incarnated in Himself. But He also brought a corrective to those western thinkers who threw out the baby with the bath water by establishing “the republic of reason” on “the ruins of religion” (12). One of the errors made by western thinkers, Saiedi says, was the equation of revelation and belief in God with religious fundamentalism and fanaticism.

Saiedi shows that the Báb, who referred to westerners as “people of the Gospel,” approved of the West’s developing technological prowess and socio-economic development by recommending the speedy establishment of post offices and the spread of the printing industry, and by expressing admiration for the skilled arts, crafts and industry of Europeans. (Kitábu’l-Asmá’ 29: 626, Bayán 4:16, Gate 319- 20). According to Saiedi, the Báb’s writings even foresee current global issues of crisis, such as the protection of the environment and the commodification of natural resources. Saiedi comments: “All levels of reality, from the material body to the human heart must be purified. Natural resources must be preserved in the utmost purity” (Gate 315). Specific injunctions exist calling for the absolute purity of water (Bayán 6:2). It may be easily deduced from this injunction that the environment must not be polluted since all substances return to the inland water table and the oceans. The Arabic Bayán (9:11) forbids the commodification of the four elements, earth, air, fire and water, which were first posited as the basic elements of the universe by the contemporary of Socrates, Empedocles of Agrigentum (c. 490-430 CE).

The Hermeneutical Key to the Symbolic Secret

The universe of the Báb’s sacred writings is pervasively symbolic. Numbers, colors, minerals, liquids, the human body, social relationships, gestures, deeds, language (letters and words), and nature itself are all mirrors or signs that reflect the profounder reality of the names and attributes (asmá va sifát) of God. However, the Báb’s symbolism is no ordinary literary device but a vast system of esoteric and complex theological meanings that are logically interconnected. Nader Saiedi has decoded that symbolism systematically. In so doing, he is demonstrating the process inherent to Gadamer’s “hermeneutical circle,” (der Hermeneutishe Zirkel) viz. the macrocosmic meaning is interconnected to the microcosmic meaning; the individual discrete meanings of a text are correlated to larger concepts which are found to be similar or identical. The one cannot be understood without the other. Understanding is also contextual: the historical, literary and cultural antecedents must be taken into account.[4]

I observe that symbolism tends to be underrated as a softer, indirect way of expressing harder propositional statements. However, systematic symbolism can prove to be intellectually complex as the dream work studies of the twentieth century psychologist and thinker, Carl G. Jung, have shown.[5] The pure sciences, and especially mathematics, consist of “languages” that can be expressed symbolically. Bahá’u’lláh revealed that the entire universe may be viewed as a vast tableau of symbols which are doors or mirrors leading to the names and attributes of God: “Every created thing in the whole universe is but a door leading into His knowledge, a sign of His sovereignty, a revelation of His names, a symbol of His majesty, a token of His power, a means of admittance into His straight Path....”[6]

The symbol or sign[7] is widely used, of course, in both poetry and prose as well as in divine revelation/holy scripture. The poetic language of the Báb’s discourse, as reflected in the title of Saiedi’s book, with its clear reference to the “heart,” might suggest that a literary critical perspective belongs in an exegetical study. I found it helpful that the poetic features of the Báb’s discourse, with all their rich metaphors, allusive symbols and rhythmic prose, were given some space. The literary dimensions of Logos cannot be excluded.

The Multi-Dimensional Dynamic of the Báb’s Symbolism

The Báb’s symbolism is interpenetrative and complex with its letter-word and number symbolism (Abjad). The limitations of space permit only one example.[8] The Báb recommended that men and women carry talismans pertaining to their sex, pentagrams and circles respectively. Men are the possessors of temples (hayákil); women are the “possessors of circles.” (Bayán 10: 5). Instructions for the construction of a square within seven concentric circles are also given in The Commentary on the Súrih of Praise. These talismans do not in themselves possess magical powers since the Báb rejects the use of magic in worship.[9] The talismans are reminders of the Divine Presence and constructing them is a devotional practice. The temple is configured as a pentagram (5 pointed star) and represents both the human body and the Manifestation of God. The circle represents the “Sun of Truth,” also the Manifestation of God. The pentagram consists of 5 lines and 6 chambers. The Báb permits the believers to write His verses within these 6 chambers and, as they do so, to supplicate God’s protection and blessing in their lives for the realization of these divine attributes. Some of His shorter writings were revealed in the form of the pentagram.

The Báb explains that the pentagram has a manifest and hidden reality which corresponds to the numbers 5 and 6 respectively. These two numbers (5+6) refer to the name of God consisting of the two Arabic letters Huva (He), expressed more fully as Huvallah, “He is God,” which is a declaration of the fundamental belief in the Divine Unity (towhid). The circles consist of 6 concentric circles which create 5 units of space between the 6 lines. Here, compared with temples, the manifest and hidden aspects of the Divine Unity are reversed, 6+5 instead of 5+6. This teaching may be taken as an oblique reference to the complementary nature of women and men since both circles and temples are contained within the Divine. The numbers of temples and circles total 11 each, indicating that both women and men have the same value in the Divine Presence. This devotional practice enjoined by the Báb prefigured what became explicit in the Bahá’í teachings as the equality of the sexes.

The Báb’s Ethics: Overview

The author treats the Báb’s ethics mainly in Chapter 13. The sources of the Báb’s ethics are found principally in the Persian Bayán, the “Mother Book,” in The Book of Divine Names, but also in various tablets, notably two Arabic tablets with the same name: Fi’s Sulúk I and Fi’s Sulúk II (On the Virtuous/Spiritual Journey). The first is a shorter and more complex tablet that was revealed before the declaration of His mission; the second was revealed after His declaration and answered Abú Tálibi’l-Husaynáví, who had questioned Him about the reward of good deeds on the Day of Resurrection.

Nader Saiedi observes that the Báb’s ethics are fully integrated with and expressed in His ritual laws, theology and spirituality which together constitute the virtuous spiritual journey or path (Sulúk). The Báb’s laws and ethical teachings always conceal an inner, spiritual/mystical significance that animates the outer practice. The believer must understand this inner significance in order to practice integrally. The Báb’s ethical teachings and ritual laws are, consequently, neither entirely radically mystical, i.e. the believer can abstain from or bend the law because he is spiritually advanced and may content himself simply to understand the law as a mere inner symbol. The Báb strongly critiques the mystically oriented Sufis who thought they were dispensed from the Shari’ah. Nor should practising the ritual law be blind; one should understand the inner, animating spirit of the law so as to avoid the application of a harsh, judicial literalism.

1. The Universal Ethical Maxim: Perform the Good Deed for God’s Sake Alone (lilláh)

In the Persian Bayán, “On the Motive of Action”, the Báb reveals that “...no behaviour turneth into a real action unless it is performed for the sake of God.” He has revealed a short prayer to ensure that our action is for God alone: “Verily, I do this for God, the Lord of the heavens and earth, the Lord of all that is seen and unseen, the Lord of creation” (7:2). In His Fi’s Sulúk II the Báb revealed this ethical maxim: “Be thou for God and His creatures even as God hath been for God Himself and for His creatures.” This means that since God created His creatures out of nothingness, and expects no reward from His creatures for His bounty, the believer should expect no reward, either from God or anyone, but should worship Him in utter nothingness and devotion.

Saiedi writes: “No action should be motivated by anything other than the intrinsic spiritual pleasure of performing the good deed itself”. All actions must be performed for others for the sake of God alone, as “a gift offered to God.” But this gift must be offered “in a spirit of utter selflessness and servitude” (304). This motivating spirit will ensure that the action will be purified and detached from the expectation of any return. If so, it will result in “the instant attainment of the pleasure of paradise” (Bayán 7:2, Gate 311-12). In other words, the deed will be its own reward. When the believer attains this state, he is able to forgive those who have wronged him or repudiated God’s Messenger since God showers His grace on believer and unbeliever alike (302).

In western philosophy, the closest parallel to the Báb’s teaching is Kant’s maxim that one’s moral action should be based on good-will and serve as the categorical imperative, i.e. one’s action should become a universal rule that is valid for all. Human beings should be treated as ends in themselves rather than utilitarian means. Differences do exist between the Báb’s and Kant’s universal maxims, which are not considered here (see Gate 303-304), but both the Báb and Kant teach that human beings should be treated as ends in themselves rather than means. One should not expect rewards but simply love people for their own sake.

2. Contentment with the Divine Good-Pleasure (Rida)

One of the main themes of Fi’s Sulúk II is contentment with the divine good-pleasure under all conditions. In this tablet, the Báb expounds the various types of contentment with one’s lot. He writes: “Be thou contented, and in utter acquiescence (rida) and at all times, with the Decree of thy Lord, first in thy soul, and then in thine outward manifestation.” The Báb requires that the believer be content even in a state of misery, “...when thou art pleased with misery even as thou wouldst be with glory...” (Gate 305).

The stations of contentment revealed by the Báb are as follows: (a) Contentment with all the circumstances of one’s life. (b) Contentment with God’s laws and commandments. (c) Contentment with others: “Thus the state of contentment is incumbent upon thee in thy relations with people” (Fi’s Sulúk II). This includes all friends and relations, especially parents and faithful siblings. Parents must be faithfully obeyed and their good-pleasure sought, even if they are “wrathful to thee.” (d) Contentment with one’s self. Saiedi writes: “The Báb calls for complete harmony between the inward and outward aspects of the human reality.” (Gate 306). Our inner desires should conform to our outward actions and vice-versa. This produces a greater degree of contentment. (e) Contentment with the divine verses. The summit of contentment is contentment with the revelation of divine verses as the supreme proof of the Báb’s person and mission which dispenses the believer from seeking other proofs, such as witnessing miracles. If the believer is not utterly content with the divine verses, says the Báb, then “all his acquiescence would be brought to naught in the Book of God, and no other mode of resignation would be of any profit to him” (Fi’s Sulúk II). The Báb’s reasoning about this summit is cogent. All that is expressed and expected about divine contentment derives literally from its source, viz. divine revelation.

3. The Perfection of a Thing is its Paradise

In the Persian Bayán, the Báb wrote: “No created thing shall ever attain its paradise unless it appeareth in its highest prescribed degree of perfection” (5:4). The Báb is explicit about the inverse: “...it is forbidden that one bring any object into being in a state of imperfection when one hath the power to manifest it in full perfection” (6:3). This principle has profound implications for all arts, handicrafts and industry, including the calligraphy used to copy His writings; in short, for all professions.

In one of the later writings of the Báb, The Book of Divine Names (Kitábú’l-Asmá’), the Báb commanded His followers to meditate on the divine name, God the Most Perfect (aqtan), and exhorts them to perfect their handiwork, whatever its nature or scale, even as God has perfected creation (29:621-25). He says that by this law, God desires to reconstruct the world: “...For verily Thou hast desired by this law, to build the earth anew by virtue of Thy glorious handiwork through the hands of Thy servants.” (ibid, 626). The Báb explains in the same passage that all things have been created with an inner yearning to attain their utmost state of perfection. At Bayán (6:3), He reveals that believers will be held accountable if they do not enable all things to attain their state of perfection. In Aristotelian terms, this corresponds to the full actualization of innate potential.

4. The Prohibition on Causing Grief to any Soul

Causing grief to anyone is strictly prohibited by the Báb. This is one of the fundamental, most frequently emphasized ordinances of the Persian Bayán. The prohibition is so weighty that a fine of 19 mithqáls of gold for one who knowingly causes grief is levied “..should it be in his power to do so” (18:7). Its corollary is advocated: One should do everything in one’s power to ease another’s heart and material circumstances. This central ethic pervades even the most mundane of social relationships. If one receives a letter, one should make a speedy reply, “...indeed, any delay is abhorred” (6:19). The Báb Himself states that a speedy reply is necessitated by the answer to the question revealed by God in the Qur'án, “Am I not your Lord?” (7: 172). “Thus, the duty to reply is enjoined for this purpose....” (Bayán 6:19).

Conversely, bringing joy to the hearts will cause one’s nearness to God. Assistance should be spontaneously rendered, even if the call is “silent”, i.e. no request is made. If one is single, one should help him or her to marry; if one is poor, one should relieve his straitened circumstances; if one is educated, one should instruct him; if one is in distress, one should bring him tranquillity, and so forth. (Kitábú’l-Asmá’ 29: 423-24, Gate 323).

The corollary to this prohibition, mentioned above, that one should ease another’s circumstances as far as possible, finds expression in a number of other precepts, laws and ordinances. One of the most novel and courteous commandments follows: “It is ordained in this religion to design the doors of each place to allow a tall man to enter through them without bending his head (Bayán 6:3). Some others are: to repay loans; not to carry weapons so as to avoid coercion; not to overburden animals; not to use pulpits or confess sins to anyone but God; not to show rage and wrath.

At Bayán 7: 18, domestic imprisonment, slavery, stoning, corporal punishment, murder, bodily mutilation and detaining someone against his or her will are all forbidden. A child must not be punished who has not reached the age of five, save by words. After the age of five, one may not strike a child with more than five light strokes. If this punishment is inflicted, it must be done over a protecting cover. The punishment should not be disrespectful or discourteous as was the custom in Muslim countries. Children must be treated with respect. For this reason, He ordains that chairs be used in schools instead of sitting on the floor. Children may have toys and engage in play.

5. Esthetics: Purity and Refinement (litáfat)

One cannot make a sharp demarcation between the Báb’s ethics and His esthetics. Other teachings, which later found expression in the Kitáb-i-Aqdas, are the related attributes of purity and refinement. Purity refers both to purity of heart and outer cleanliness. The Báb reveals: “Nothing is more dearly loved in the Bayán than purity, refinement, and cleanliness...” (5:14). The ritual laws that derive from purity and refinement are: (a) Having a bath in one’s home and bathing at least every 4 days. This would avoid use of the malodorous and unsanitary hamman (public bath). (b) Wearing clothes that are clean. (c) The prohibition of smoking, opium and intoxicants. (d) Treating the dead body with dignity and respect which excludes desecration and mutilation. (e) The wearing of silk and the use of gold and silver utensils are approved. These were prohibited in Islam.

A Special Question: The Law of the Sword

The author reserves the treatment of a sensitive question for the last chapter (14), a question that has proved controversial.[10] It should be noted first that the Arabic word jihad does not literally mean “holy war” but rather struggle, striving or fight. But the connotative and contextual meaning of jihad in effect is synonymous with a westerner’s understanding of holy war. Saiedi’s explication of jihad is done by rebutting the arguments of Dr. Denis MacEoin, who was one of the first scholars to do serious work on the transformation of Shaykhism to Babism in his 1979 Cambridge Ph.D dissertation. Saiedi’s arguments are convincing enough to warrant the conclusion that MacEoin has not really understood the gist of the Báb’s writings on the law of the sword. This does not mean, however, that the sociologist-theologian has judged the books of Dr. MacEoin to be a total distortion. Saiedi wrote that he found the works of the Irish scholar “...very useful despite their hasty judgment on the depth of the writings of the Báb.”[11]

Basically, MacEoin rejected the Bahá’í position that the Báb advocated defensive warfare only, but argued instead that the Báb intended His followers to wage fully offensive warfare. In fact, MacEoin contended that, based on early and later writings of the Báb, Bahá’u’lláh’s Herald had actually intensified Islamic jihad, making it a sixth pillar of His religion. By this sixth pillar, every trace of the nonbeliever would be purged from the land, over which a Bábí totalitarian king would reign supreme. The outcome of history alone prevented this realisation. By this argument, the Tabarsí upheaval was purportedly proof of insurrection against the Qájár state based on the Báb’s injunctions concerning jihad.

Saiedi builds on the previous work of scholars who took issue with MacEoin’s contention. Saiedi’s position is that the Báb, while at face value, seemed to preserve the law of the sword, and did not formally abolish it, both the letter and spirit of His injunctions on warfare, and His ethics of loving-kindness, demonstrated His intention of rendering offensive jihad null and void until Bahá’u’lláh formally abolished it on the first day of His arrival in the Garden of Ridvan in Baghdad in 1863.

These are the main points by which Saiedi presents his understanding of the law of the sword:

  1. A literal reading of the Báb’s injunctions on holy war as intensified Islamic jihad is a misreading. The Báb Himself has explained in the Dalál-i-Sab’ih (29) that the Qá’im “...in His first Book [Qayyúmu’l-Asmá’] enjoined the observance of the laws of the Qur'án, so that the people might not be seized with perturbation by reason of a new Book and a new Revelation and might regard His Faith similar to their own...” However, the crucial point is that the meaning of jihad is no different from the radically transformed symbolic meanings of other Islamic terms such as the Day of Resurrection, life and death, hellfire and paradise, slaying and quickening, and the Balance. The law of the sword had, instead, strong rhetorical purposes. The Báb, consequently, adapted His early writings to the horizon of the familiar expectations of a Shí’ih audience, while radically altering the inner meaning (bátin) and practice of jihad.

  2. The literal reading of the law of jihad is problematic because it creates a logical conundrum. The Báb considered the Qayyúmu’l-Asmá’ to be the Day of Resurrection itself. But in Shí’ih Islam, the Day of Resurrection is the end of history in the sense that the Qá’im would totally vanquish His enemies: no unbelievers would be left. In that case, there would be none against whom jihad could be waged.

  3. The waging of holy war by the Bábís is dependent on the sanction of a Bábí king. This right was never given to ordinary believers. The ascension of a Bábí king to the throne in Persia was an impossible condition to fulfil and never came to pass. Therefore, the Báb never intended that jihad should actually be waged.

  4. MacEoin misunderstood the Báb’s Epistle of Justice: Branches and the Dalál-i-Sab’ih (The Seven Proofs) in which the Báb affirms that the sword would not be sheathed until “ the rising of the sun from the West.” MacEoin mistakenly took this assertion to mean that jihad would never end since the sun would never rise from the West. But the Báb explains in the Dalál-i-Sab’ih (51-52), and in a number of other places, that the rising of the sun from the West refers to the dawn of His own revelation from Shiraz or Fárs. On this reading, we are faced with a radically different meaning, one that is precisely the opposite of MacEoin’s contention.

  5. The Báb gave explicit instructions in both His early writings and later in the Persian Bayán, which superseded them, that the call to jihad must be sanctioned by the Báb, a sanction that was never given. Unlike Muhammad, the Báb never raised the call for jihad.

  6. The rhetoric of holy war indicates that the Báb’s Cause would be eventually victorious. The effect of this rhetoric was to galvanize the Bábís to practise the innovative laws of the new dispensation, and to remain alert and vigilant, ever ready to believe in Him Whom God Shall Make Manifest.

  7. At Bayán (8:15), the Báb states that the implementation of the severe laws of the Bayán should be delayed until “the exaltation of the Cause of God in the Day of Him Whom God shall make manifest.” Thus, the execution of the law of the sword is delayed until the coming of Bahá’u’lláh who abolished it on the first day of His arrival in the Garden of Ridvan.

  8. At Bayán (5:5), the Báb reveals that a Bábí king may expel non-believers from the land and seize their property. But the Báb stipulates an important proviso: “Indeed, in the lands where the observance of this law may cause grief or harm to any soul, God hath not even permitted its mention...” It may be readily seen from this text that the execution of this law would unavoidably cause grief or harm. The law is again made dependent upon an impossible condition. Ergo, it was never intended to be practiced.

  9. MacEoin has failed to reconcile his interpretation of the Báb’s severest laws with His fundamental ethical maxim of loving-kindness: not to cause grief to any soul. Furthermore, in the entire penal code of the Báb, whether in the Persian or Arabic Bayán, neither capital punishment nor imprisonment is prescribed. Instead, fines and deprivation of intimate company are decreed.[12] MacEoin has not accounted for these discrepancies between the letter and the spirit in the Báb’s law of the sword, in light of His ethics of gentility and loving-kindness.
Reservations

Gate of the Heart contains a number of minor errors and omissions which do not significantly detract from the book’s merits. One question that should have been addressed is the authenticity of the Báb’s writings. Shoghi Effendi in recounting the “crimes” of Yahyá Azal, wrote of “His corruption, in scores of instances, of the text of the Báb’s writings; ...his insertion of references in those writings to a succession in which he nominated himself and his descendants as heirs of the Bab;” (God Passes By, 164).[13] The reader would have benefited from some further clarification of the corruption of the text raised by Shoghi Effendi which involved the vital question of succession to the Báb.

Some footnote references to western philosophers are thin. Certain references to Feuerbach, Durkheim, Freud, Comte, Edgerton and Rawls cite titles only without page numbers to support the assertion (Introduction, ns. 11-16). Scholarly rigor requires further research with page citations. A few minor English usage errors occur with the use of the definite article which is known to be challenging for Persian speakers. For example, Saiedi writes of Kant: “He asserted that the “good will” is morally good in itself...” (303). This clause should read “He asserted that “good will” is morally good in itself...” In another case, the definite article was required when it went missing: “...this interpretation is so subtle that it has been frequently missed by various commentators on the text, who have sometimes concluded that [the] Qayyúmu’l-Asmá’ does indeed interpret the story of Joseph...” (144). I would quibble that “Vahid” instead of “Unity” is preferable to refer to longer sections of the Báb’s writings, for example, as in Gate Two, Unity [Vahid] One (2:1).

In conclusion, this book is a first class work of academic Bahá’í scholarship.

It seems fitting to close this review essay in the words of Jesus, spoken about John the Baptist. They could have been spoken by Bahá’u’lláh about the Báb: “But what went ye out for to see? A prophet? yea, I say unto you, and more than a prophet” (Mt. 11:9).

Notes

  1. An estimate made by Nader Saiedi who has examined one part of the two-part MS. The estimate is fairly accurate since it is based on the number of Unities or Vahids (Chapters) in the book: 19 consisting of 19 parts each. Email communication to the author, October 28, 2008.
  2. Email communication from Nader Saiedi to the author, June 17, 2008.
  3. Anselm became the third Archbishop of Canterbury. His famous dictum was a definition of theology. Along with his Credo ut intelligam (“I believe that I may understand”), the saying was, in turn, a response to St. Augustine’s exhortation: “Do not understand that you may believe; believe that you may understand.”
  4. As explained in Hans-Georg Gadamer’s Wahrheit und Methode (1960) trans. Truth and Method (1975). See especially “The Ontological Shift of Hermeneutics Guided by Language”, Part III (New York: The Seabury Press, 1975).
  5. See, for example, the collection of Jung’s essays, Man and His Symbols.
  6. Bahá’u’lláh, Gleanings From the Writings of Bahá’u’lláh, trans. Shoghi Effendi, 2nd ed. (Wilmette, IL: Bahá’í Publishing Trust, 1976) 160.
  7. Jung made a distinction between the sign and the symbol. The sign “...is a substitute for, or representation of the real thing, while a symbol carries a wider meaning and expresses a psychic fact which cannot be formulated more exactly.” An Introduction to Jung’s Psychology, p. 20.
  8. The explanation in this section is summarized from Gate of the Heart, 329-30.
  9. Saiedi, Gate, 330.
  10. The following arguments are compressed from “The Law of the Sword in the Writings of the Báb” in Gate of the Heart, 357-368.
  11. Email from Nader Saiedi to myself, June 17, 2008.
  12. In the Arabic Bayán, for example, the fine for murder is the payment of 11,000 mithqáls of gold to the victim’s family and 19 years deprivation of the matrimonial bed.
  13. Shoghi Effendi, God Passes By, intro. George Townshend, rev. ed. (Wilmette, IL: Bahá’í Publishing Trust, 1974, 1999 printing) 164.
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