Bahá'í Library Online
. . . .
>>   Book Reviews

Symbol and Secret: Qur'an Commentary in Baha'u'llah's Kitab-i-Iqan, by Christopher Buck:

by Jonah Winters

published in Journal of Bahá'í Studies, 9:3, pages 69-75
Ottawa: Association for Bahá'í Studies, 1999-09
Symbol and Secret: Qur'an Commentary in Bahá'u'lláh's Kitab-i Iqan (Studies in the Bábí and Bahá'í Religions, volume 7)
Author: Christopher Buck
Published by: Kalimát Press, Los Angeles, 1995
Review by: Jonah Winters

Christopher Buck's Symbol and Secret: Qur'an Commentary in Bahá'u'lláh's Kitáb-i Íqán (Studies in the Bábí and Bahá'í Religions, volume 7) can be seen as a work of genius: it is groundbreaking—daring, innovative, and even brilliant—and yet it can be frustratingly opaque.

Juan Cole's introduction states that this is "the first book-length academic study devoted entirely to a major work of Bahá'í scripture." (xi)1 This aside, there is another area in which Symbol and Secret breaks ground. Based on the author's 1991 master's thesis under Islamicist Andrew Rippin, Symbol and Secret broaches topics which, though crucially important to Bahá'í scholarship, have largely been ignored by the Bahá'í community: namely, Islam and its relation to the theology and scripture of Bahá'u'lláh.2 While the sheer youth of Bahá'í scholarship in the West is doubtless the chief culprit in this academic oversight, there is also a certain timidity to discuss things Islamic in the general Bahá'í community in the West.3 To anyone who studies the early history of the Faith or the symbolisms and cultural influences in the writings, however, the need for a thorough understanding of Islam becomes apparent. "Bahá'u'lláh was, after all, a Muslim," Buck points out in speaking of Bahá'u'lláh's cultural heritage. (87) It is only through investigations into Islam that certain textual allusions, metaphors and symbolic representations, technical terms, cultural assumptions, and even writing styles in the earlier Bahá'í scriptures can become transparent.

The Kitáb-i-Iqán is the text which Shoghi Effendi singled out as "...the most important book written on the spiritual significance of the Cause" (The Light of Divine Guidance, volume 1, 37), and can be seen as the central book of Bahá'í theology. It stands in a unique historical position. Ostensibly a book written by a Bábí, for Bábís, and in defense of the Báb, it was revealed on the eve of Bahá'u'lláh's official declaration of 1863 and soon came to be seen as a book written by a Bahá'í, for Bahá'ís, and in defense of Bahá'u'lláh. As such, the Íqán fulfills three roles: it is a defense of and theological exposition on both Babism and the Bahá'í Faith, and it serves to bridge and coordinate the two religions.

The title of Symbol and Secret derives from the above two considerations. First, the book examines the treatment of Islamic symbolism in the Íqán, and even explains how the Íqán is itself an example of Qur'anic exegesis. The Íqán can even be seen as residing within—though transcending and reshaping—a textual tradition of Islamic works of exegesis. Here Symbol and Secret is in not-too-unfamiliar territory, for both the Islamic exegetical tradition and Western scholarship on the same are coherent, respected, and active genres of scholarship. Second, Symbol and Secret examines the theological underpinnings of the Íqán: was it written by a Bábí, or by He Whom God Shall Make Manifest? What was the state of Bahá'u'lláh's "messianic consciousness" at the time of its writing? And to what extent was Bahá'u'lláh disclosing his own secret, i.e. the fact that he himself was the promised Manifestation? Here Buck is on unexplored territory for, while the nature of the Báb's evolving messianic consciousness has been explored in print, the topic has barely been addressed within published Bahá'í studies. Much of the book examines to what extent the Íqán conceals or alludes to the "secret" harboured by its author and whether it was meant to foreshadow the imminent annunciation of the secret. Symbol and Secret thus examines the symbol, the identity of the Íqán as an exploration into Qur'anic and Islamic symbolism, and it explores the secret, the nature of Bahá'u'lláh's true identity at the time. Along the way the book touches on many other, usually related, issues, such as the manuscript and publication history of the Íqán, Shí`í notions of the Mahdi, and Bahá'u'lláh's agenda of social and religious reform.

As the book sometimes lacks a sufficiently well-ordered structure (see below), its strengths can be addressed by discussing it section by section. After a somewhat meandering introduction, Buck launches into a critical analysis of the history of the Íqán in chapter one. The early history of the Íqán is first examined, from the date of its revelation to its dissemination and the history of the original manuscript. Next he devotes nineteen pages to its publication history with a depth and assiduousness that should be regarded as a model for future textual scholarship. Buck clearly conducted diligent investigative work, examining both common and obscure books and journal articles, the work of contemporary scholars and historians, comparative analysis of manuscripts, letters to and from the Research Department of the Universal House of Justice, and analysis of the statements of certain individuals hostile to the Bahá'í Faith, all carefully footnoted. The import of this study surpasses simply the publication history of the Íqán, for it touches on the dating and dissemination of other key Bahá'í texts, proposes solutions to certain historical dilemmas, and responds to critical charges made by early opponents of the Faith. The diligence and concentration Buck devoted to this early section offers great promise for the rest of the book to follow.

The primary focus of chapters two and three, "Exegesis and Ideology" and "Beyond Islam," is Bahá'u'lláh's tactical approach to overcoming the primary theological obstacle to post-Islamic revelation: the nature of the Qá'im, or Mahdí, and the meaning of "Seal of the Prophets," which Buck isolates as the "single verse [standing] as the most formidable doctrinal obstacle facing Bahá'u'lláh." (57) Buck demonstrates and explains Bahá'u'lláh's brilliant device of, rather than negating certain statements in prior scriptures by claiming a new and higher authority, using theological symbols in the older scriptures against each other to reinterpret themselves. This technique allowed Bahá'u'lláh to reject the common understandings of certain key themes in prior scriptures and invest central symbols with new meaning, while yet retaining the authority of these texts. "With Bahá'u'lláh, the Qur'an is indeed confirmed, but relativized." (89) This chapter concludes (in a section that should perhaps belong in the next chapter) with a discussion of some technical terminology: Bahá'u'lláh's use of the terms symbol (ramz), secret (sirr), implication (talwíh), and allusion (ishára).

Chapter four, "Exegetical Techniques in the Book of Certitude," which at 123 pages occupies over one third of Symbol and Secret, is the most technical and weighty section of the book. Here Buck delves into the heart of his project: a demonstration that Bahá'u'lláh's agenda at this point in his mission is prosecuted through innovative Qur'anic exegesis, tafsír. Buck examines many types of exegetical innovation pioneered by Bahá'u'lláh, only a few of which will be highlighted here.

Among the innovations Bahá'u'lláh introduces into the tafsír tradition is "interscriptural exegesis," i.e. explaining the symbolism in the scripture of one religion through recourse to the scripture of another religion, in this case explaining the Qur'an through the New Testament. This is a type of exegesis which would not have been considered prior to the Bábí/Bahá'í religion, because traditionally Muslims regard the Bible as having been corrupted and see the Qur'an as having been sent to restore scriptural purity. To Bahá'u'lláh, though, both scriptures are authentic, and hence can be used to explain each other. Using this new type of tafsír, Bahá'u'lláh is able gradually to chip away at the obstacle to new revelation presented by "Seal of the Prophets." Another innovation is Bahá'u'lláh's extended appeal to rationality. Buck shows how the Íqán consistently points out that literal interpretations of some symbols would be pointless, of no profit to God or humankind. For example, in speaking of Qur'an 39:67, "The whole earth shall on the Resurrection Day be but His [God's] handful, and in His right hand shall the heavens be folded together," Bahá'u'lláh says "And now, be fair in thy judgment. Were this verse to have the meaning which men suppose it to have, of what profit, one may ask, could it be to man?" (215-216, quoting Íqán 47-48 [cf. Symbol, 248-251]) Partly through such appeal to rationality and exposing the absurdity of certain literalistic readings of the Qur'an, Bahá'u'lláh prepares the reader of the Íqán to transcend traditional interpretations and become more receptive to a new message, a new religion. A final strength of this chapter is Buck's adaptation of the tafsír typology elaborated by Islamicist John Wansbrough. While Wansbrough's work is not without its detractors—a common complaint being that it is little more than Orientalist reductionism4—Buck's application of his hermeneutical typology to the Íqán is highly instructive. Wansbrough adduces twelve exegetical techniques used in traditional tafsír, such as "variant readings," "proof texts," "grammatical explanation," "rhetorical explanation," "analogy," etc. Buck finds ten of Wansbrough's twelve techniques in the Íqán and discusses each in turn, usually providing and analyzing examples from the text. This section is among the most focused examinations of Bahá'í scripture published in English and, even if a reader might disagree with some of Buck's analyses, the endeavour itself is to be applauded.

Symbol and Secret's conclusion, "The Other Side of the Bridge," uses the above discussions of Islamic context and content in the writings of Bahá'u'lláh and his reinterpretations of Qur'anic symbolism to extrapolate into the realm of Bahá'í theology. Here Buck examines the implications of Bahá'u'lláh's exegetically- founded break from Islam for issues such as post-Qur'anic revelation, religious and social reform, rational vs. metaphorical approaches to scripture, the Bábí reception of the Íqán, and Bahá'u'lláh's "messianic consciousness." This chapter contains some of the most enlightening and useful discussion in the book, and Buck quite successfully conveys the sense of urgency and potency infusing the Íqán and the state of the early Bahá'í community.

As the above discussion has been somewhat technical, there is danger of the forest being lost for the trees; the innovativeness and relevance of Buck's work must be re-emphasized. The Bahá'í writings can in large part only be understood when the literary, cultural, and theological traditions from which they sprang are examined, and the influences of one are traced through the other. Familiarity with the Islamic and Persian contexts is crucial for two reasons: one, Bahá'u'lláh reflects it; two, Bahá'u'lláh builds upon it. When an Islamic or Persian symbol, metaphor, or teaching is reflected in a later Bahá'í one, an understanding of the former is a clear prerequisite for a full understanding of the latter. Conversely, when Bahá'u'lláh modified, built upon, or re-interpreted familiar symbols and teachings, an understanding of their old meanings is a prerequisite for an understanding of how Bahá'u'lláh built new ones. As Symbol and Secret is the first work written in English to examine Bahá'í scripture and hermeneutics in any analytical depth, Buck's work can without exaggeration be declared seminal.

Given the importance of the topics Buck addresses and the skill with which he examines them, it is regrettable that some readers might find Symbol and Secret impenetrable. There are two main obstacles in approaching this work: the opacity of Buck's prose, and the occasional disorderliness of the book's content. These problems permeate the book, but a detailed accounting would serve only to harp on them. Therefore, only a few examples will be given.

The difficulty of Buck's prose is perhaps the more superficial of these two criticisms, and will be addressed first. This can be isolated into two main criticisms: an infelicitous mixture of the poetic and the academic, and Buck's predilection for lengthy words and disjointed paragraphs.

Buck has striven here to maintain a balance between the academic and the confessional, between an approach rooted in objective impartiality versus one rooted in faith-based apologetics. Since scholars of religion in general and Bahá'í scholars in particular are often called upon to strike such a balance, Buck's attempt is to be defended in principle. Did Muhammad "write" the Qur'án, or did God "reveal it through him"? Did Bahá'u'lláh gradually "become aware of his messianic consciousness," or did he carefully plan the gradual revelation of a mission of which he himself had been fully aware since 1853? Buck has succeeded well at balancing on this particular fine line, for he has written a lengthy objective work thick with obscure technical jargon which yet manages to convey a warm sense of commitment to and respect for his field of inquiry often lacking in scholarly books on religion.

However, whether due to his personal writing style or as a conscious literary device, his writing can in places read as an unsuccessful juxtaposition of poetic and academic styles. For example, his extended analogy of "fleshing" symbols on page 92 does add colour to his presentation, but it is a colour which clashes. Buck displays a fondness for polysyllabic alliteration, as in "pestilential pit" (xxx), "artifice of ambivalence" (6), "vituperative vaticination" (84), "arcanely augured" (86), or "extraordinary extemporaneity." (294) With shorter words, or less obscure ones, such a device can nicely spice up any prose. In this book, however, they might serve only to bog down the reader or, worse, bemuse him. As well, he sometimes fails to remember that clarity is more important than technicality. Why "variae lectiones," (139) when "variant readings" carries exactly the same semantic value? Why "loci probantes," (141) a phrase not even found in the Oxford English Dictionary, when "proof- texts" is a common and equivalent phrase?5 Finally, some of the writing suffers from prolixity. For example, Buck states that "Shoghi Effendi...provides a periphrastic rendering of the verse in translation" (176), which could equally be rendered as "Shoghi Effendi...periphrases the verse." ("To periphrase" is to express the meaning of a phrase by many words instead of by few, of which this sentence is itself an unfortunate example.)

A more problematic aspect of Symbol and Secret is its somewhat chaotic form. It lacks some coherence both in formatting and in content; internal evidence could give the impression that it was composed in numerous parts which were combined into a somewhat haphazard whole for publication. Formatting inconsistencies include both the appearance of words, such as "tafsír" appearing both in italics and in roman on the same page (84), the use of diacritics, such as "Qur'an" and "Qur'án" appearing on the same page (129) or even in the same sentence (130), and the decisions as to which words were unfamiliar enough to require diacritics: why "Islam" but not "Islám," when the text has "Muhammad" but not "Muhammad"? Why "ulama" but "hadíth"? The implication is that "Islam" and "ulama" are in common English usage, whereas "Muhammad" and "hadíth" are not. Such inconsistency is no more than an occasional distraction, but it does indicate a certain lack of editing—as do the few dozen typographical errors occurring throughout the book.

Other indications of insufficient editing are that citations are treated inconsistently. Many authorities are cited just by last name, e.g. "According to McAuliffe..." (82) versus " Irish Islamicist Denis MacEoin..." (xxii) Identifying MacEoin as an "Irish Islamicist" does not impart any significant meaning which is lacking in not identifying McAuliffe, but the implication given is that the reader is expected to recognize the unidentified names. Conversely, some authorities are identified repeatedly, e.g. "...Sa`d al-Dín al- Taftázání (d. 1389 or 1390 C.E.)..." (91), "...the authoritative rhetorician al-Taftázání..." (161), and " Taftázání (d. 1389 C.E.)..." (252). Foreign words can also be inconsisently defined: e.g. "imámí akhbár" is first used on page 128 but not defined until page 132, while "Akhbárí" had been defined on page 127. This interrupts the reader's concentration as he or she skims forward and backward trying to find out what he or she missed. These and other similar examples—such as works cited in the footnotes but missing from the bibliography, or footnotes missing from the text—indicate that the text might not have been written systematically and was not edited closely enough.

Were such inconsistencies confined to the technical sphere the above would be simple nitpicking, but the content of the text can also be disorderly. The numerous sections are formatted as if belonging in the same hierarchical level—they are distinguished usually by headers in capital letters—when their content is actually of varying levels. For example, "Wansbrough's Tafsír Typology" (134), "Procedural Devices in the Book of Certitude" (136) and "Variae Lectiones" (139) are three sequential sections, each one seemingly a sub-section of the previous, but are formatted with identical headers. At minimum, the presentation of the twelve devices, each one granted its own section, should have been numbered. As some chapters have up to a dozen such sections, and chapter four has twenty-two, the reader can quickly become lost.

The topics examined in the text can be jumbled, with unrelated sentences, paragraphs, and whole sections inserted in the middle of otherwise coherent presentations. For example, the short paragraphs on Bábí messianic fervour on pages 110-111 seem to bear little relation to the definition of tafsír immediately preceding them nor to the paragraphs on New Testament apocalyptic immediately following. Conversely, topics that should be presented coherently can be found scattered across the book. For example, the issue of Bahá'u'lláh's messianic secret, which the title of the book implies is one half of the book's content, is picked up and then dropped in ten places, none of which represents a single, unified treatment. Buck appears to discuss and settle the question in 64-73, where he examines Bahá'u'lláh's self-consciousness, Bábí messianic expectations, and the techniques Bahá'u'lláh used both to hide and to reveal his "secret." When all of the same topics are then addressed in pages 257-275, albeit in greater detail, one wonders why the two sections are half a book apart. One further wonders what organization guided the layout of Symbol and Secret when the book ends, not with a tight summary of ground covered, but a discussion of Bahá'u'lláh's agenda of socio- religious reform which does not seem to bear direct relevance to the preceding book and reads more as the introduction to a new, unrelated book. It is curious that, though admitting that this section is "outside the scope of this study," (282) Buck devotes ten pages to it.

Given the number of topics covered and the somewhat random way in which they are treated, the book should have a more detailed table of contents and an index; in the age of computerized word processing where a minimal index can be created in a day, the lack of one is, to be blunt, inexcusable and hampers the book's utility as a resource tool.

The above criticisms of the book are offered, not in the spirit of complaint, but in regret that such a valuable work as Symbol and Secret is marred by flaws as soluble as re- ordering, more careful writing, and further editing. Buck has undertaken a project that is to be commended on many fronts. First, this study is daring in that it is the first extended analysis of the Islamic context and content of Bahá'u'lláh's thought and writings. Buck's tangential self-defense on pages 260-261 indicates that he, too, is well aware of the daringness of the topic and of his academic approach to it. Second, the rigour with which Buck has treated his topics is a model for anyone engaging in textual scholarship: his research is broad, his attention to detail thorough, and his coverage of the topics exhaustive. Finally, many of his conclusions, the light he throws on the Íqán and its content, and in places even his methods are frankly brilliant. Though the potential reader must be warned that Symbol and Secret can be a frustrating and opaque text which is difficult to penetrate, it is a phenomenal study which will well repay the diligent reader.


    1 To be correct, Cole's statement should have read that Symbol and Secret is the first published book-length academic study; it was preceded by Diana Malouf's 289- page dissertation The Hidden Words of Bahá'u'llah: Translation Norms Employed by Shoghi Effendi (State University of New York at Binghamton, 1988).

    2 To date, only one book and perhaps ten articles have addressed the Bahá'í Faith and Islam. See bibliography in Robert Stockman and Jonah Winters, A Resource Guide for the Scholarly Study of the Bahá'í Faith (Wilmette: United States Bahá'í National Center Research Office, 1997), 101-102.

    3 This reticence can in part be traced to guidance such as the following from the Universal House of Justice to the National Spiritual Assembly of Canada: " should be stressed to the Iranian Bahá'ís that...they should not normally seek out Iranian Muslims in order to initiate friendly contacts with them or teach them the Faith" Lights of Guidance, third edition (New Delhi: Bahá'í Publishing Trust, 1994), 430.

    4 See, for example, apologist Fazlur Rahman's Major Themes of the Qur'án (Minneapolis: Bibliotheca Islamica, 1994), xiii-xiv.

    5 Or, as Hans Wehr translates the term in question, shawáhid, "quotation[s] serving as textual evidence." (Hans Wehr, Arabic-English Dictionary [Ithaca: Spoken Language Services, 1976], s.v. "sháhid."

Back to:   Book Reviews
Home Site Map Forum Links Copyright About Contact
. .