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Asking Questions: A Challenge to Fundamentalism and The Secret of our Century: Bahá'u'lláh, by Bahiyyih Nakhjavani:
Reviews

by Cybele Sohrab

published in Bahá'í Studies Review, 3:1
London: Association for Bahá'í Studies English-Speaking Europe, 1993
Asking Questions: A Challenge to Fundamentalism
Author: Bahíyyih Nakhjavání
Publisher: George Ronald, Oxford, 1990

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The Secret of our Century - Bahá'u'lláh (video)
Author: Bahíyyih Nakhjavání
Publisher: Fourth Epoch Productions, 1992
Reviews by: Cybele Sohrab


Appearing within two years of each other, "Asking Questions" and "The Secret of our Century - Bahá'u'lláh" are the latest additions to the impressive body of work by Bahíyyih Nakhjavání. In their own way, both the book and the film bear witness to the innovative style of the author. Nakhjavání affirms that her work is based on the particular contribution women make in history - not only the part they play but their vision of it as inclusive of myth and legend rather than as the traditionally masculine linear, intellectual and chronological perception of the passing of time.

As its title suggests, "Asking Questions" was written in an attempt to explore the subtle threat posed by questions to all bastions of fundamentalism. A well-aimed question has been known to bring such fortresses crashing to the ground. In the sense in which it is used in the book, fundamentalism can be seen not only as dogmatic rigidity within religious structures, but as any thought which plods blindfold around the treadmill of its own unquestioning assumptions.

The essays in the book range nimbly over a variety of such traditionally sacrosanct topics as priestcraft, women and religious law, exposing and exploding the sacred silence which has protected them heretofore and in the process pointing the way to a more fruitful, more untrammelled understanding of their place - or absence - in the Bahá'í folk culture. In the chapter devoted to priestcraft, Nakhjavání asks, "can we purge our psyches of the need for a priesthood just because it has been abrogated as an institution? Or are we in danger, irreligious as our society is, of turning lawyers and psychiatrists into priests, and assuming the mantle ourselves, even in the act of writing?" (41) She contends, "The word 'priestcraft' reveals more about those subject to its sway than those who command them" (41). One is reminded that a great number of those opposing the admission of women into the priesthood were members of congregations themselves, not just those priests who felt their own position threatened. But the implications of 'priestcraft', like fundamentalism, are not limited to religious institutions alone. "There have been many priests who did not commit the sacrilege to human dignity of wielding priestcraft, and there continue to be many people who employ it in the name of law and medicine, education and art" (41). Priestcraft in its religious and secular forms is, in a sense, moral coercion and intimidation - in Nakhjavání's words, "the last relic of our superstitious fear of the unknown" (42). The exclusion of priestcraft from the Bahá'í Faith ties in with the proscription of asceticism, monasticism, the confession of sins and congregational prayer; it ties in with the appointment of 'Abdu'l-Bahá as the Centre of the Covenant. All these ordinances can be seen as annulling the traditional role of priests in society, as "demystifying the path of holiness", as "replacing the role of spiritual leader in the community with the common exhortation to all alike to become servants before God" (42).

In the light of Bahá'u'lláh's laws in the Kitáb-i- Aqdas regarding priestcraft, and in view of the chasms yawning inexorably in the Church over the question of the ordination of women, one can see another example of humanity's stubborn refusal to address issues at their root. In an earlier chapter, Nakhjavání writes, " . . . the history of the human race, from one point of view, is the history of the wrong questions being asked" (4). In the context of women and priestcraft, she posits again, "Only by asking the question 'Can women be priests?' do . . . we . . . 'shake off the shackles of an antiquated system' that Shoghi Effendi tells us must be discarded in order for us to ask 'Why have priests at all?' Only forced by the question of which of them is 'right' do we face the dilemma that we may have been asking the wrong question all along" (58).

Familiar themes, such as tales of the Dawn-Breakers, are presented and juxtaposed in an unfamiliar way, lending a freshness to the style of the book itself, and serve to illustrate Nakhjavání's point that "it [has] been the distinguishing characteristic of the Manifestations of God that they take the symbolic gestures of an old and decaying civilization and transform them, revolutionize them, reverse their meaning" (160). Clearly a Revelation that revolutionizes calls for a vision unencumbered by the dross of prejudice, in however subtle a form. The book is written with an often arresting originality of expression and calls upon on impressive cast of characters, from heroes and heroines of the Faith to others as far afield as Sir Thomas Browne, Blake and Luther. If Nakhjavání's style sometimes threatens to become too implicit, nonetheless it issues an unmistakable challenge to rise to new levels of response, while never lapsing into erudite pomposity.

Sharing some of the aims of the book but fulfilling them with less success is Nakhjavání's film "The Secret of our Century - Bahá'u'lláh". Tracing Bahá'u'lláh's exile and imprisonment and the parallels of this suffering with the sufferings now racking humanity, it brings into play another series of juxtapositions. Notable among these is the story of the Purest Branch: "A brief life. A brutal death," says the narrator, and on the screen flashes an image of stark white crosses marking the graves of the war dead. Such moments of felicitous editing are sadly few and far between as there is a marked gulf between the literary skill displayed in the production and its stock of images.. When visual ingenuity runs out, familiar images - sunsets, roses quivering with dew - are deployed, but for the most part remain all too familiar. The laconic, poetic script explodes the accepted rapturous loquacity of introductory videos of the Faith, but unsupported by a corresponding level of image, slides at times into a rather unwieldy stiffness and stiltedness. The original music composed for the film, while striking a blow at the hallelujah rock tradition, goes to the opposite extreme of near-atonality and its monotony is ultimately intrusive. Had the film concentrated on its initial theme of dispossession and exile in the twentieth century mysteriously linked with certain as yet obscure events which occurred in the nineteenth, it would have retained a great deal of its impact. Unfortunately, as with the majority of introductory videos being produced in the Bahá'í world today, the film is anxious to give a comprehensive view of the whole Bahá'í Faith, an impossible task. The initial potential it displays as a film with a relevant and wholly new outlook on current events is dissipated as it plods down a well-beaten track, whipping round the globe on a tour of Bahá'í communities, leaving the viewer bemused in a welter of information, styles and images.

Where "Asking Questions" is a milestone in recent Bahá'í literature, with a dazzling frame of reference and wealth of ideas and originality, the film shows the same literary craftsmanship and deftness, which however is not complemented sufficiently by the visual arts.

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