Scripture and Revelation (Papers presented at the First Irfan Colloquium, Newcastle-upon-Tyne, England, December 1993 and the Second Irfan Colloquium, Wilmette, USA, March 1994)
Editor: Moojan Momen
Publisher: George Ronald, Oxford, 1997, 369 pages
Reviewer: Brian A Miller
Scripture and Revelation, the third volume of George Ronald's series Bahá'í Studies, initiates a departure from the first two volumes. The latter were single author works, Sacred Acts, Sacred Space, Sacred Time by John Walbridge and Diane Malouf's Unveiling the Hidden Words. In his introduction to Volume 3, editor Moojan Momen promises that this collection of articles taken from conferences held in England and the United States during 1993 and 1994 "represents the first in a series of volumes presenting the proceedings of the Irfan Colloquia." On the diversity of material included, he comments that, "The essays in this volume vary widely in style. Some are written from the viewpoint of faith·while others adopt a more neutral academic style." He states that he has not "attempted to achieve a uniformity of tone or style" (ix-x). While the variety of approaches employed by the authors is significant and refreshing, the quality of material is uneven. Some of the research and findings reported by the authors has been used in subsequent publications, as with the work of John Hatcher. Others, like Robert Stockman, Stephen Lambden, and Khazeh Fananapazir offer highly useful starting points for further inquiry. Three major questions recur throughout these essays and studies: what insights can a reasoned analysis of sacred scripture yield? What critical and interpretive approaches do the Bahá'í writings support or employ? What can be learned from the methodologies used in the study of other religious traditions and their scriptures?
The core essays in this volume employ a "study of religions" approach. This methodology is both historical and comparative. Robert Stockman, Stephen Lambden, Kamran Ekbal, Todd Lawson, Seena Fazel and William Barnes examine a variety of texts from the writings of the Báb and Bahá'u'lláh and explore diverse avenues of understanding and interpretation. These scholars carefully consider analytical tools developed for the study of Zoroastrian, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam and experiment with their applicability to related issues in their study of Bahá'í scriptures. Throughout this volume the authors either demonstrate by example or argue directly for the usefulness of a critical approach, in the scholarly sense of the word, to the Bahá'í writings, where criticism means the application of the tools of reason and logical discernment.
John Hatcher advocates comparative literary approaches as he explores "The Validity and Value of an Historical-Critical Approach to the Revealed Works of Bahá'u'lláh." Hatcher's essay introduces to the general reader some of the aims and terms of literary criticism and advocates the usefulness of a literary approach to the Bahá'í writings. In this lies the article's primary strengths. He argues that interpretive methods developed in the field of literary criticism, textual analysis and historical criticism may be combined and applied effectively to the study of the writings of Bahá'u'lláh. He suggests that the objectivist approach that relies on "a close reading of text and its attempt to discern various metaphorical and symbolic levels of meaning would be the appropriate critical approach to take with the revealed works of Bahá'u'lláh" (28). Hatcher examines several passages from the writings of Bahá'u'lláh and Shoghi Effendi that support not only this approach developed in America by the practitioners of "New Criticism," but the importance of an analysis that explores the historical context for the revelations of sacred scripture. In support of this argument, he examines the "Tablet of the Holy Mariner" and the Arabic "Tablet of Ahmad." While these two approaches are perhaps the easiest to advocate among the various techniques of literary analysis employed by scholars, Hatcher wisely avoids excluding other methodologies. He concludes: "In the final analysis, of course, there can be no reliable formula for interpreting the revealed works of Bahá'u'lláh, but we can infer from the examples mentioned above that the tools of historical criticism as well as those of other branches of literary analysis can offer useful and valid assistance for the average reader as well as for the scholar because Bahá'í scripture appears in an astounding variety of literary styles."
Hatcher does not include among those "other branches" any of the more contemporary literary methodologies neither in this article, nor in his book Ocean of His Words. While he rightly focuses on his preferred approach, that of close reading with reference to historical criticism, he could have presented his case more forcefully in the article had he stated his reasons for excluding the structuralist methods and some of the more contemporary post-structuralist techniques for textual analysis. Indeed, even methods related to his own area of expertise such as what is being called "new rhetoric" have much to say about the use of rhetorical devices that could be applied to Bahá'u'lláh's writings with good results. Some literary theorists advocate deconstructionist methods based on post-modernist decisions about the status of the author, the proliferation of meaning, and the importance of uncertainty. While most Bahá'í scholars, like Hatcher, would find these approaches inappropriate for their projects, the examination of textual dynamics and theories of reading could help address some of issues that Hatcher raises. Still, Hatcher offers a good introduction to the methods and concerns of literary analysis without attempting to be comprehensive.
Hatcher does not wish to advocate prescriptively a narrow approach but he attempts to link one set of methods and support it with a particular theological position. He poses an interesting set of questions when he considers a passage from the Lawh-i Hikmat:
Indeed, in the Tablet of Wisdom Bahá'u'lláh states that He is able to quote passages from books He has never had physical access to because He sees before Him the pages of works He wishes to cite: "Thou knowest full well that We perused not the books which men possess and We acquired not the learning current amongst them, and yet whenever We desire to quote the sayings of the learned and of the wise, presently there will appear before the face of the Lord in the form of a tablet all that which hath appeared in the world and is revealed in the Holy Books and Scriptures." We might well wonder whether the process Bahá'u'lláh describes here alludes to some divinely arranged text retrieval system or whether this same process obtains with all the revealed works of Bahá'u'lláh. In other words, does the Manifestation have any creative role to play in the rendering of the divine thought into a particular language? For example, in the concluding sentence of this same passage Bahá'u'lláh states, "Thus do We set down in writing that which the eye perceiveth." Perhaps He is indicating that revelation always employs this procedure whereby He sets down precisely the words He is commanded to utter. (31)
Hatcher could use this passage to answer his own question about the creativity and exercise of will by the Manifestation. Instead, he confuses two different processes by conflating them. He has previously quoted Bahá'u'lláh regarding the process of revelation. Here he quotes him on a different subject that Bahá'u'lláh describes in order to explain his miraculous ability to quote from texts to which he has no material access. He does so by an exercise of will "whenever We desire to quote·" Yet in the act of revelation, Bahá'u'lláh affirms that he has no power to resist or alter the course of the divine will. This leaves the author ineffective in exploring a fascinating question that literary method, in addition to theology and philosophy, might help to answer.
Sen McGlinn in his review of Hatcher's book Ocean of God's Words identifies some of Hatcher's theological views and their effect on his readings. His insightful critique has its own problems, but his concern about Hatcher's narrow selection of sources and methodological weaknesses deserves careful reading. He also points out that Persian and Arabic are necessary to study questions of style and genre. He notes several instances where knowledge of key Arabic terms would have clarified certain questions Hatcher poses. Even so, neither McGlinn nor I would insist that fluency in Arabic and Persian are prerequisites necessary for a literary analysis of Bahá'u'lláh's writings. It simply limits the kinds of questions the reader can ask. Hatcher's article for Scripture and Revelation is limited by its elementary approach to questions governing literary analysis as applied to the Bahá'í writings. Articles aimed at non-specialists are valuable and particularly helpful at this juncture; however, I think Hatcher has underestimated his audience. Otherwise we might concur with McGlinn that he is overcautious due to his own uncertainty regarding his methods. A third possibility would hardly bear mentioning that his caution arises from an unconscious fear of the results of a vigorous application of critical methods would yield. I choose to mention this possibility not because it applies to Hatcher, for it does not; rather, it applies to those in the Bahá'í community who are still suspicious of critical scholarship because it challenges assumptions they may hold dear. In any case, these limitations whether due to Hatcher's assumptions or the weakness of his methods are in part overcome in Ocean where he applies hermeneutic methods, genre criticism, structuralist analysis, etc. McGlinn's review itself is a cogent and thought provoking application of literary methods of analysis to readings of Bahá'u'lláh's writings. His review of Hatcher's work provides a welcome service in its critique of his methods by highlighting the dangers and pitfalls that have ensnared many Bahá'í readers. Still, the works of John Hatcher, Sen McGlinn, Franklin Lewis, Susan Brill de Ramirez, Christopher Buck and Todd Lawson provide ample proof of Hatcher's principle argument: literary methods properly applied can yield many rich and insighteful readings of the writings of Bahá'u'lláh, not to mention those of the Báb, `Abdu'l-Bahá and Shoghi Effendi. We need to address more challenging questions in our readings of Bahá'í writings. As we negotiate the difficult terrain between reasoned belief, careful scholarship and honest inquiry into matters of faith, it is imperative that we experiment with diverse methods to discover the most useful tools for plunging into the depths of these texts for meaning and structural significances. The revelations of Bahá'u'lláh require the best scholarship and criticism we can bring to bear and will yield wonders commensurate with our efforts.
Todd Lawson also uses literary methods in his discussion of an intriguing example of Qur'án commentary by the Báb. He provides an illuminating introduction to the genre of tafsír or Qur'anic exegesis as not only a scholarly endeavour, but a deeply religious and highly personal engagement with holy scripture. He places the Báb's commentary on Sœra 103, Wa'l-Asr in this genre and then gives a detailed analysis. He describes this tablet as a divine encounter with the Word of God on the most fundamental level. The text in question is actually an example of ta'wíl, an esoteric interpretation of the symbolic meaning of each letter that comprises this Sura, or chapter of the Qur'an. Lawson helps us to see that this is not a rational exercise in symbology, but a spiritual process of engaging the text in which insight, `irfán, takes precedence. He uses clear prose and thoughtful analysis to guide us through a minefield of Islamic epistemology with clarity, grace, and sensitivity. The success of Lawson's efforts recommends a similar approach to other examples of tafsír and ta'wíl in the writings of the Báb and Bahá'u'lláh.
Kamran Ekbal contributes one of the best essays to Scripture and Revelation, entitled "DaŽná-DŽn-Dín: The Zoroastrian Heritage of the `Maid of Heaven' in the Tablets of Bahá'u'lláh." Apart from Christopher Buck's dissertation, this is one of the most significant contributions to the fruitful area of inquiry into the relationship between previous Iranian religions and the Bahá'í Faith. His method of close textual comparison of relevant passages from several religious traditions traces the use of the motif or figure of the Maid of Heaven in Zoroastrian scriptures and her echoes and recurrences in Christianity, Manicheanism, Islam and the Bahá'í Faith. He uses the methodologies of linguistics, religious studies, history and literary criticism to build a strong case for both the wide influence of Zoroastrianism on the religions of the region and the universality of the specific figure of the Heavenly Maid. He discovers startling parallels between Zoroastrian descriptions of the Maid of Heaven and those found in the writings of the Báb and Bahá'u'lláh. He argues that the very word for religion in Arabic and Persian (dín) derives from the Avestan daena. Commenting on one such description, he observes that "daena obviously indicates here religion in general, the eternal religion of God which had already existed before Zarathushtra and which He is called upon to `purify'" (137). He suggests that this meaning arises from the function of the Maiden daena as the embodiment of the righteous practice of a holy man. "The Maiden perceived in [another] passage is without doubt an image of the transcendental double of the soul, a reflection of his own self; she is the `mirror' in which the righteous man contemplates his own ego" or, perhaps, the results of his righteousness (139). This adds meaning to Bahá'u'lláh's description of the Maiden as "the embodiment of the remembrance of the name of My Lord" and substantiates the Guardian's comment "that Maiden that personified the Spirit of God within Him..." Ekbal also notes her appearance in Christian and Manichean texts. This masterful study in comparative religious symbology represents a major advancement in our understanding of Bahá'u'lláh's employment of the figure of the maiden. It provides a fascinating elaboration of the statements of `Abdu'l-Bahá and Shoghi Effendi that the Maid of Heaven represents at once the personification of Bahá'u'lláh's revelatory soul and the embodiment of His religion. We might infer that she also symbolizes the transformative power of divine revelation. More than this, Ekbal points the way toward a comparative theology that greatly enhances our appreciation of the textual links between the Zoroastrian religion and the Bábí and Bahá'í revelations. He could have said more about her place in the writings of the Báb. In particular, he would have enriched his discussion had he elaborated on the similarity between the text he cites from the Revelation of St. John the Divine (Revelations 21: 9-11) and a remarkable passage from Báb found on page 54 of Selections from the Writings of the Báb. He suggests lines of inquiry that could substantiate a theological interdependence, even a genealogy of ideas that lies at the foundation of Semitic and Indo-European religions.
In response to these findings, I wish to raise the question whether similar links might be found to the religious systems of East Asia and perhaps Europe and Africa. It is quite possible that this resplendent feminine being has her counterparts in the deities of Hinduism. The Hindu and Zoroastrian religions share a common religions heritage (or parentage) as evidenced by divine figures or powers that share the same name, but with divergent, occasionally inverse valuations. If this can be shown to hold true, we may find the Maid of Heaven in the Hindu pantheon with a reversed image associated with darkness instead of light, like Kali, or complex, like Shiva. What are the feminine beauties associated with Buddhism and Confucianism? How is the Maiden related either genetically or symbolically to the fertility goddesses and mother goddesses of Europe and Africa? In the Greek pantheon, the figures of Aphrodite and Athena come to mind as they represent attractive beauty and love on the one hand, wisdom and virtuous action on the other. We may well find a close resemblance in Achilles' mother, Thetis, the nereid or sea-nymph. She appears to him on several significant occasions in the Iliad. Not only is she his mother, she is his source of divine assistance, and to an extent his knowledge and wisdom. She appears as a luminous mist rising from the sea before she manifests a feminine shape. (Iliad, Book 1, lines 350-425) Her attribute is "silver-footed." Her apparition, like that of a few other divinities in the Iliad, reads like an instance of manifestation. Formless light takes human shape. In post-classical Greek literature, Sophia should be considered as a possible occurrence of the Maiden. Ekbal's exploration of these issues carries forward the kind of work that the anthropologist and student of religion, Mircea Eliade pioneered. Ekbal's essay alone makes the acquisition of Scripture and Revelation worthwhile.
Stephen Lambden surveys Christian, Muslim, Bábí and Bahá'í interpretations of the figure of the Paraclete (or "Counsellor") in the Gospel of John. His detached presentation allows the reader to participate in his comparison of scripture, prophecy, commentary and interpretation. He shows that while each religion interpreted the Biblical prophecies differently, they respond to a shared promise of continuity in divine guidance. Lambden offers a research paper that describes the occurrences of and references to the figure of the paraclete or comforter in Christian, Muslim and Bahá'í scriptures. He presents a fascinating collection of texts that allows for serious comparative scriptural study. I think he would do well to elaborate more extensively the implications of his research.
Khazeh Fananapazir applies a similar approach to that of Stephen Lambden when he investigates several religious traditions for the occurrences of terms "Day of God" (Yawmu'lláh) and "the Days of God" (Ayyámu'lláh). He takes as his starting point the work of Hájí Mihdí Arjmand, the person in whose honour the conferences were held. He then assembles a useful collection of references from Christian, Muslim, Shaykhi, Bábí and Bahá'í scriptures and writings. Like Lambden, he avoids elaborate interpretation in favour of enabling the reader to draw his or her own conclusions. He selects a passage from the writings of Shoghi Effendi as the concluding observation on the meaning of these terms.
Robert Stockman assigns three categories to Bahá'í scripture: revelation (by the Báb and Bahá'u'lláh), interpretation (by `Abdu'l-Bahá and Shoghi Effendi), and elucidation (by the Universal House of Justice.) He discusses the parameters and functions associated with each category. He thoughtfully examines quotes from each figure that suggest certain limitations on omniscience and infallibility. Stockman's discussion addresses a recurring question in Bahá'í scholarship regarding the parameters of authority and potential or actual limitations to the infallibility of the central authorities in the Bahá'í Faith. He begins by contrasting the primacy of the concept of revelation in Bahá'í thought with its precarious position in academia, where its assignation to scripture is either rejected as falling outside the parameters of scholarly inquiry or downplayed and held in doubt, even among Christian scholars. He then asks if current descriptions and definitions of revelation, whether by Bahá'ís, Christians, or academics, are adequate. He answers in the negative and observes that "the situation appears to be more complicated than one might initially think·. Further, in the process of such explorations, one should feel free to ask tough questions from the perspective of faith·. An investigation of revelation does not require a choice between honesty and respect; rather, both are necessary." Stockman explains that "revelation·appears to have a dual nature: divine origin and earthly expression. The words, the grammar, the style, the brain and the hand or voice will all leave traces that we can identify in the thought of God when it becomes text. They may all generate limitations on the revelation, as Bahá'u'lláh Himself suggests when He laments `how great the multitude of truths which the garment of words can never contain!'"(54-55) The deft phrase, "the thought of God when it becomes text," exemplifies Stockman's ability to express complex concepts in accessible and provocative language.
Seena Fazel addresses a subject important to anyone engaged in dialogue with followers of other religions in his essay "Understanding Exclusivist Texts." He suggests that as religions assert their claims for uniqueness and universality, they can foster notions of exclusive access to truth and salvation. Such ideas may lead to spiritual pride and divisiveness. He examines how Christian scholars and theologians have addressed this problem as they come to terms with religious pluralism. Fazel identifies several problems or "interpretive errors" that often accompany the use of "exclusivist texts." These include "erroneous texts, erroneous interpretations, and misrepresentative texts." He then identifies modes of expression and types of language (diction) used in sacred scripture for various purposes. These are "survival language, apocalyptic language, confessional language, and action language." Failure to recognize these different modes of expression can lead to erroneous interpretation or reliance on misrepresentative texts. He then turns to the Bahá'í writings to examine the potential for similar problems. He examines selected passages in the Bahá'í writings that could present difficulties to the general reader and that Bahá'ís have used or might use to advance their own exclusivist claims. Fazel calls our attention to the significant dimensions of voice in the Bahá'í writings. Since Bahá'u'lláh has affirmed the multiplicity of meaning in his writings, we must be attentive to literary structures and shifts in the speaking voice. Attentiveness to this point would temper the language of interfaith dialogue. Fazel offers a particularly useful analyses of the "Tablet of Ahmad" (Arabic) and its potential difficulties. "But perhaps the strongest voice [in the Tablet] is `action language'. Bahá'u'lláh calls the Bábí community to follow the laws of the Báb at a time when it was `in such a state of deprivation and perversity': `O people be obedient to the ordinances of God, which have been enjoined in the Bayán.' Another element of its `action language' is aimed at the Tablet's recipient, Ahmad, calling him to proclaim Bahá'u'lláh as `Him Whom God shall make manifest' to the Bábís." He then addresses the most problematic passage, "He who turns away from this Beauty hath also turned away from the Messengers of the past·" He comments, "The Arabic for `turning away', i`rád, implies willful rejection. On this level, it remains applicable to Bahá'ís who are reminded of the dynamic of belief in Bahá'u'lláh, the lifelong challenge of mystical insight, `irfán, into the Manifestation. Thus, the verse would be misinterpreted if understood to refer to the salvation of non-Bahá'ís" (270-71). While Fazel could have suggested several other interpretive manoeuvres to address the problems of these passages, his reading is faithful to the text, the subtleties of language and the larger context of Bahá'u'lláh's other writings. He provides Bahá'í readers with very useful models for sensitive and insightful readings to resolve difficult questions and common misinterpretations. I would offer one caution for such a project. If we adhere too closely to the contextualization of these utterance, we may miss the larger structures found in the writings. This can create two problems. One the one hand, it may lead to an exegetical error by excluding appropriate meanings or interpretations. On the other hand, it can limit the emotional and spiritual impact of Bahá'u'lláh's revelation on the mind and heart of the reader. Fazel acknowledges this problem, particularly with texts that he identifies as using "confessional" or "action language." These categories cannot be applied rigidly. As Fazel notes with the "Table of Ahmad," several voices may function together in a single text. Scholars need to exercise great caution so that their readings do not limit the multiplicity of potential meanings in the revelation.
Julio Savi, William Barnes, and Ross Woodman conduct internal scriptural analyses. Julio Savi discusses "The Love Relationship between God and Humanity: Reflections on The Hidden Words of Bahá'u'lláh." William Barnes attempts a comparative reading of themes of "Origin, Fall and Redemption" in Biblical and Bahá'í texts. His fascinating discussion draws on the work of Joseph Campbell, Mircea Eliade, and Carl Jung. Yet the intersection of Christian concepts of fall and redemption with Bahá'u'lláh's healing vision of unity misses the Qur'anic elements of original nobility, forgetfulness, and personal responsibility. Woodman's "Inner Dimensions of Revelation" traces the progression of masculine and feminine imagery associated with revelation from Bahá'u'lláh's Kitáb-i-Íqán to the "Tablet of Carmel." He focuses on the use metaphor, the unveiling of meaning, and the spiritual marriage between the Maid of Heaven and the Lord of the Age.
This wide-ranging collection of essays and studies offers provocative insights, raises profound questions and suggests many fruitful avenues of inquiry. Bahá'í scholars are expanding the range of their inquiries and the diversity of tools they utilize. The contributors demonstrate the value of developing new approaches to the study of the Bahá'í writings. They initiate the reader into a process of discovery and avoid the formulation of definitive answers. We look forward to the publication, anticipated by the editor in his forward, of the proceedings of other Irfan conferences .
- Reviewed in BSR 6 (1996): 61-63 and BSR 8 (1998): 1-14 by R. Jackson Armstrong-Ingram and Frankin Lewis respectively - eds.
- Wilmette: Bahá'í Publishing Trust, 1997.
- See The Century of Light (Haifa: Bahá'í World Centre, 2001) 132.
- Bahá'í Studies Review 9 (1999/2000): 195-207.
- See review by William Collins in this issue, page 157 - Eds.
- God Passes By (Wilmette: Bahá'í Publishing Trust, 1965) 101.
- Ibid., 121.